I first became aware of The Babadook a fair while ago, at about the time that film festival audiences were raving about it. A low-budget, Australian, independent horror film, centring on a small cast, it seemed exactly my sort of thing. It also seemed like exactly the sort of thing which would get an all-too-brief release in a few small independent cinemas, before disappearing.
Fortunately (for me) not so! I am surprised and a little confused at the amount of coverage it has received, and more so to be able to see it in my local purveyor of cinema.
So the stakes are raised. In a pretty weak field of horror films out for Halloween (Note: Horns is not a horror film), this looked like the stand out offering. Which is a tough burden for any film to carry.
The Babadook centres on Amelia (Essie Davis), the single mother of six year old Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Exhausted Amelia tries to deal with hyperactive “problem child” Samuel, after her husband Oskar died in a car accident driving her to the hospital to give birth. Samuel is terrified of monsters, and after Amelia reads him a bedtime story about the titular “Babadook”, he becomes convinced that the monster is real, and after them. Amelia despairs of her son, until a series of strange goings on lead her to believe that he may have a point.
This film nailed it for me. Got me right in the horror-craving stomach with a sucker-punch.
What sells it, basically, is the human aspect. From the tragedy of what happened to Oskar, to Amelia’s bleary eyed exhaustion, this is a film about people. At no point does it descend into gore, or pointless jump scares (though there are some jump scares), but rather ramps up tension throughout mainly down to the palpable stress that the main characters are under.
That mother-child relationship is old ground for horror, but in the right hands it can still be fertile. As The Babadook demonstrates. The fear is less of the nasty coming to kill Amelia and Samuel, but that the nasty being Amelia and Samuel. How can they protect each other from themselves?
The fact that it plays on real fears, and real issues, rather than some faceless killer without a reason, sharpens its effectiveness, and it turns, by the end, into a beautiful extended metaphor. The Babadook is about Amelia coming to terms with long held and repressed fear, loneliness and loss, and conquering them (or not).
You’ll notice that I’ve gone most of this review without touching on the titular creature. Mister Babadook is, really, not the big bad of this film. He is the driving force, undoubtedly, but as above he is a metaphor for something altogether scarier and more real. In terms of design, the creature is minimalist, exactly like something from a children’s picture book, and seen so fleetingly and infrequently that he retains an air of mystery. Is he real? Is Amelia losing the plot? Perhaps both? The colour scheme works fantastically well, keeping him obscured and making him out of all sorts of props and set dressing.
The Babadook was exactly what I wanted it to be. For me, it’s up there with Mama in terms of genuinely chilling, tense films, with a solidly human heart. With the likes of Paranormal Activity, their cinema-ready characters don’t evoke an ounce of sympathy, and the jump scares become boring and sameish. Here, the horror is down to being able to put yourself in the characters’ shoes, and to feel the fears that they are going through. The final scenes, as I have said, turn the whole thing into a fleshed-out, crafted metaphor, and makes this into one of the best made horror films of recent years.
Stunningly good stuff.