You can’t get rid of The Babadook
[pullquote cite=”” type=”left, right”][amazon text=Amazon&template=carousel&chan=That Film Guy&asin=B00OPUUFQU][/pullquote] “If it’s in a word, or in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook” utters Essie Davis’ strained mother Amelia in the latest crowd-funded horror that marks the directorial debut of Jennifer Kent. Expanding upon a short story entitled Monster, Kent forgoes the single violin note followed by a loud bang style of horror that is proving so commercially successful at the moment in favour of a well-built character piece that is a classier form of horror.
Following the tragic death of her husband in a car crash on the way to give birth, Amelia (Davis) and her son Robbie (David Henshall) live a quiet life together in the surburbs of Australia. Desperate for attention from his mother, Robbie builds weapons to defend this way of life fromt he monsters that he fears are in every nook of their home. The stress and strain escalates on Amelia after she reads a mysterious book called Mister Babadook, which appears to have life beyond the pages.
It is a rare thing in horror cinema these days to spend time building character, instead opting for a series of jump-scares that are effective because of the volume of the score rather than because of a deep connection to the film itself. Kent flies against convention in this regard to present her two central characters as fully-realised creations. The stressed mother who somehow resents her son, whether because she blames him for the death of her love, or because of his constant need for attention and inability to not speak his mind.
This sort of paedophobia is a common trait in classic horrors such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, but rarely is it explored so thoroughly and effectively as here. It is easy to understand Amelia’s feelings toward her son, the person she is programmed to love unconditionally but who fears is ruining her life. The script takes great pleasure in presenting Robbie as both demon-child and innocent defender of his mother and our affections waver with him in the same way that they waver in her.
This is down in no small part to the performances of the Henshall (who gives the greatest child performance in all of cinema) and Davis who are so perfectly cast as to transcend simple performance into something far more real and far more understandable. This in turn feeds into the audiences reaction when the bad and supernatural elements are introduced. We’re tense and scared because he actually care about both of the characters on a level beyond mere art.
The Babadook also benefits from an incredible art design that includes both a creepy Tim Burton-esque pop-up book and a villain how is steeped in the lore of previous icons like Freddy Krueger in the A Nightmare on Elm Street films, although owes more than a healthy nod to The League of Gentleman‘s Papa Lazarou. Kent also cleverly doesn’t reveal the creature in any great detail and so the fear of the unknown remains intact. It is also to be noted that Robbie at times appears dressed in a similar outfit to The Babadook, which cleverly toys with the idea that he may or may not be involved with the creature.
Kent’s masterful direction brings to life the claustrophobia of the situation, with tight-angled shots and the simplistic sounds of bubbling pots and creaking doors interspersed with a creepy fairy tale score that never overstays its welcome, and always does exactly what’s required and nothing more. The low-budget element of the film helps to avoid over-budget bloat that effects so many horror films in the modern era. This is not a cheap horror, but a rather classy one complete with nods to Georges Milieu and the birth of cinema itself.
The ending when it does come is reasonable well timed, even if the dramatic gusto deflates in the final moments. It’s difficult to know how a fairy tale horror like this should end, and while the sinister ‘happy ending’ that we’re given is unexpected, there is a sense that something a little more impressive might have been called for to really elevate The Babadook into the category of all-time great. It is also possible that those who have grown accustomed tot he Paranormal Activity cattel-prod scares might find the creeping horror and tension a little underwhelming, especially as you are never treated to that one great jump at any point.
This however seems to be the point. Kent doesn’t want to relieve you of the tension you feel. She wants you to remain on edge even when the film has finished. It’s a refreshing new presentation in a genre that quickly becomes tired and stale and The Babadook is comfortably the best horror of the year.