Movie Review: The Babadook

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A traumatised mother and her challenging son are haunted by a storybook monster.

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Jennifer Kent, 2014

Six years after her husband died driving her to the hospital to deliver their son, Amela (Essie Davis) is struggling as a single working mother. Her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) keeps her up at night with his fear of monsters lurking in his bedroom, and builds weapons which he takes to school. He’s alternately loving and violent, sweet and angry, and Amelia has trouble connecting with him. She’s called to Samuel’s school from her job at a nursing home to be informed about his behavioural problems, and in response to the school’s harsh comments she decides to pull him out of school. One night, Sam finds a book on the shelf for Amelia to read to him. Called ‘The Babadook’, the book is filled with creepy illustrations of the titular monster creeping in through the closet and attaching himself to a family. Amelia puts the book away, but it haunts her, and she starts to see the Babadook everywhere. She seeks help, but everyone pulls away from her, leaving Amelia and Sam to fight the monster alone.

babadook

This is a really tight, fascinating low-budget Australian horror movie. It harkens back to the tradition of great horror movies by exploring societal taboos – here, the pressures on women (particularly women in care roles – it’s no accident that Amelia works at a nursing home), mental breakdown, and grief. All great horror movie villains represent cultural fears, and the Babadook is no different, only he represents some particularly forbidden topics. I don’t want to spoil too much in case anyone has the opportunity to see it, but it’s a particularly well-crafted story, pulling together the threads to deliver a satisfying film. It’s genuinely, properly scary, too. Amelia’s old Melbourne home creaks and crackles with deep black shadows that sink into the lines of her face, and nightfall becomes the enemy as the family fights insomnia, irritation and insanity. Director Jennifer Kent (sidenote: lady horror director = awesome) has a terrific talent for creating creeping fear. The sense of tension is palpable well before there’s even a mention of the monster, Amelia’s tightrope-walk of a life becoming increasingly stressful. Once the inescapable book appears and becomes more and more frightening, one can’t escape the chills, and the whole second act is masterful.

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Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman in ‘The Babadook’

Unfortunately, as is the case with most horror movies, the tension is lost in the third act. It’s the rare case that, after the initial shock of finally seeing the monster in all its glory, a film will continue to be properly scary, and the manic climax of this movie is no different. Babadook was made with the help of Kickstarter, and the budget woes hold it back slightly. Essie Davis acts her heart out and is brilliant, but the Babadook fails to really impress, a little-seen low-tech monster of puppetry with German expressionist aspirations that works best in the shadows. (Honestly, the book illustrations are scarier.) The film is at its best when Essie Davis and the talented young Noah Wiseman are playing off each other, which is good, because the film is practically a double-header. There are a couple of wonderful scenes with other characters, including a sexist co-worker, Amelia’s snobby sister, and an elderly neighbour, but those do more to highlight Amelia and Sam’s isolation in the world within their home than expand it. The film wraps up in a really intriguing way once the uninspiring boss battle is over. I’d recommend this one to any fans of horror, and it’s easily the best Australian effort I’ve seen in a few years.

The Babadook on IMDb

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