Australia. Directed by Jennifer Kent, 2014. Starring Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McElhinney. 93 minutes.
It’s a thick “pop-up book” of the type we all read when we were kids, bound in red cloth, with the silhouette of a strange humanoid figure wearing a hat embossed on the cover. Above that, the title: MISTER BABADOOK. The book tells, in rhyme, the tale of the titular monster. Once you discover his existence, he enters your body through your mouth, forcing you to do naughty things, and never, ever leaving. “If it’s in a word or it’s in a book,” reads the opening couplet, “you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”
Single mother Amelia (Essie Davis) tries to be a good mum, but she’s still haunted by the death of her husband Oscar, who died in an auto accident while driving her to hospital the night of her son Samuel’s birth. Samuel (Noah Wiseman), now six, tries to be a good boy, but he’s impulsive, stubborn, eccentric and more than a little wild. Their relationship has been fraying for years. One night, Amelia finds a copy of Mister Babadook on Samuel’s bookshelf, and reads it to him before bedtime, inviting the Babadook into their home, and their lives.
Who–or what–is Mr. Babadook, exactly? He’s a metaphor, of course, for the scars we leave when we speak cruelly or thoughtlessly. Horror can be highly effective when it operates on that allegorical level, and The Babadook is as effective a monster movie as it is a dysfunctional family drama–a horror story that knows what the monster under the bed really means. Writer/director Jennifer Kent grounds the story with a keen sense of human nature, reminiscent of Stephen King’s best work (more than once the film reminded me of The Shining). All of us know families that treated each other like this, and some of us have been part of those families. That grounding allows the film’s fantastical elements to take flight.
The Babadook is a starkly and grimly beautiful film in both cinematography and design, evoking the feel of gothic picture-books filled with gallows humor by artists such as Mervyn Peake and Edward Gorey. Mr. Babadook himself is a triumph of design, one of the most memorable movie monsters of recent years. The film’s atmosphere is as thick as petroleum jelly, but Kent proves as adept at shocking the audience as she does creeping it out.
However, as good as Kent’s story and direction are, the film requires crackerjack lead performances to truly succeed. Essie Davis truly knocks it out of the park (actually, this being an Australian movie, I guess she should do whatever cricket’s equivalent of “knocking it out of the park” is), ensuring Amelia’s sympathy and believability even when she’s not exactly at her best. I was highly impressed with Wiseman given his age, and although I occasionally found him grating or annoying, so is the character. (Also, I’m not always very good with kids.) Kent has also assembled an impressive supporting cast, including Hayley McElhinney as Amelia’s self-absorbed sister and Barbara West as a kindly neighbor.
In my review of The Taking of Deborah Logan I said that some of the best supernatural horror operates by helping the audience work through, and come to grips with, the terrors of real life, and The Babadook is exactly the sort of thing I had in mind: a story that works on multiple levels of terror. It’s a modern classic, and I’d not be surprised if in the near future it’s regarded as one of the seminal horror films of this era. An absolute must-see.