Anguished, uncanny, and entirely terrifying, The Babadook is a pressure-cooker of teeth-grinding tension, a haunting tale with deep wells of howling grief at its center, a dream within a dream within a nightmare that leaves behind it a satisfyingly toxic residue of fear. It’s a small-batch treat that can change the composition of your evening.
Six years after the violent death of her husband, Amelia (Essie Davis) struggles to discipline her weapon-inventing 6-year-old, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), a son she finds impossible to love. When an enigmatic picture book turns up at their house, Samuel is sure that the Babadook is the creature he’s been dreaming about. His hallucinations spiral out of control, and Amelia is forced to medicate him. Then Amelia begins to see glimpses of the sinister presence, as it stalks a house that’s a mausoleum for her memories.
Davis gives an expertly calibrated juggernaut of a performance, portraying this harangued, grief-sick woman with an authenticity and honesty that is punishing to watch, graduating from the tired fragility of Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby to a version of Piper Laurie’s deranged matriarch from Carrie. Either placidly succumbing to insanity with heavy eyelids and a half-smile, or roaring while caught in its vortex, she is completely compelling. Wiseman – an honest-to-goodness rascal in the film’s first half – similarly pulls off an incredible balancing act, toying and disobeying and button-pushing, but remaining endearing and sympathetic enough to remind us he’s just a lonely kid.
Writer-director Jennifer Kent has taste, a creative eye, and a knack for unfussy editing and brisk, accelerated pacing. Kent’s clean, controlled mise-en-scène oozes sophistication while belying the terrors bubbling beneath its surface, and the bluish, washed-out cinematography conjures the cold, foggy atmosphere of classical haunted-house stories like The Innocents or more recent efforts like The Orphanage. Later on, the skewed angles reframe the drab house into what HP Lovecraft would call “non-Euclidean geometry.”
Unquestionably the best Australian film since the one-two slasher-thriller punch of The Loved Ones and Animal Kingdom, The Babadook is an oppressive experience that causes the hairs to stand up, the fingers to curl, and the nails to dig into the upholstered arms of the chair. Kent takes no false steps, even in duplicating the levitation effects from The Exorcist or the mother-son relationship dynamic from The Ring, and her sense of self-possession is refreshing. Expanding her 2005 short Monster, Kent has burned her influences onto every reel of her film, and the result is scalding and scarifying and terrific to the touch.
Reminiscent of the German Expressionism of the 1920s, particularly The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Mister Babadook is a masterpiece of design and implementation. Bedecked in top hat, trench coat, and long-fingered gloves, it looks like Mr. Hyde – with the insidious talons from A Nightmare on Elm Street, the crushed throat croaking from The Grudge, and the transience of the great white from Jaws. Yet Kent uses the visage with sparing efficacy, and her spartan approach to world-building works beautifully, buttressed by a depth of catharsis more than the volume of its frights.
Even classifying The Babadook is tricky: it’s so layered, complex, and dramatic that categorizing it feels reductive to the point of insult. It’s almost The Shining in miniature: if Sylvia Plath made a horror film, this would be it. The Babadook is more than a Down Under Freddy Krueger, and the film goes beyond any single raggedy phantom, reaching back to the primordial fear of loss – of a child, of a partner, of oneself – setting a bar by which future horror films will be measured.
The Babadook is a minor masterpiece of the macabre; a dark and shivery journey through the fears and repressed anxieties of motherhood; an artful, superbly made, darkly rich study in madness that lurks in the corners. Intelligent and disturbing, it’s the sort of film that keeps you wondering, the sort that will delight horror fans and may convert a fence-sitter to the dark side.
The ending learns a lesson from Shaun of the Dead and adopts its tame-the-monster-and-lock-it-away approach, but doesn’t have the same impact as getting dragged back into those caves, driven mad by the memory of your five-year-old daughter and a birthday cake under fire light, and it’s not as profoundly trouncing as its classic counterparts. Regardless, it finds a rare emotional realism in what could have been a run-of-the-mill creepshow.
Although its rapturous reception is due in part to the rarity of filmmaking this skillful within the horror genre, it’s hard to begrudge The Babadook the praise it’s gotten, because it earns its stripes. If it’s in a word or in a look, you can’t get rid of The Babadook. Premature bereavement leaves one torn between equally debilitating extremes of love and resentment. Vigilance is the only means of protection against creatures from the id.