It’s true what you’ve heard, THE BABADOOK is very good. But is it really all that scary? I’m not so sure.
Set in suburban Australia, The Babadook follows working mother Amelia (Essie Davis) who is left caring for her child on her own after her husband dies in a car crash whilst driving her to hospital. Her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is a troubled and imaginative boy whose behaviour makes it difficult for the pair of them to fit in with “normal” society, and Amelia becomes steadily worn down in both body and spirit. Then, when a sinister pop-up story book appears in their house, something comes with it…
Bizarrely, Mister Babadook is the least frightening thing in the film. Yes, he has a striking design, and he’s done a great service by never being revealed in his entirety, but he’s more an excuse to evoke a consistently sinister mood and to make creepy noises from impenetrable shadows than he is a monster who will invade your dreams. The most frightening he ever is is on the pages of his book, complete with nightmare-inducing rhyming verse (and if the book itself is ever released for purchase, I imagine it’ll be a very popular item of geek merch). Far scarier is what Babadook represents: the failure of parenthood; the inability to control your child’s behaviour or protect them from harm. These themes fill you with dread, and this is the atmosphere conveyed throughout. But after all that, after the reviews, after William Friedkin, director of THE EXORCIST called it one of the scariest films he’d ever watched, I was expecting something more horrifying and more lasting.
It’s a film built around two hypnotic performances from Essie Davis and the young Noah Wiseman. If you didn’t care about, if you weren’t compelled by, this core relationship between Amelia and Samuel, then the film would have imploded. The decision to keep the pair disconnected behind the scenes appears to have contributed greatly to the palpable tension and discomfort in their relationship evident on camera. Davis makes you experience her character’s utter exhaustion and paranoia as a single working mother with issues of her own and a challenging child in her care, and she takes her to some incredibly dark places later in the film. Said challenging child, in the hands of Wiseman is a force of nature, and as an actor he’s a real find for the future.
Daniel Henshall is also in it, and I found it incredibly difficult to believe he was playing a decent human being here following his chilling turn in the psychologically scarring SNOWTOWN. Hayley McElhinney also leaves her mark as Claire, Amelia’s sister and Samuel’s aunt, giving as she does one of the most painful and cruel excuses for not spending more time with her family I think I’ve ever heard.
First-time feature director Jennifer Kent makes the most of her modest budget through original and economical set and creature designs all veiled in German Expressionist shadows. Low-key creativity can’t hide everything, however, and occasionally frayed edges in the visuals show through, and the sound mixing could probably have done with another pass in post-production for clarity.
Minor gripes aside there really isn’t all that much to complain about. For me, The Babadook tripped up as a horror film for not being all that scary for me, but that doesn’t mean you will have the same experience, and it might just hit the right buttons to chill you to your core. It works well as a traumatic family psych-drama, and what anyone can appreciate is the shear talent on show, both from debut or breakthrough turns from actors, and from the artists working behind the scenes who have been quietly grafting away for years. Now they’ve proven themselves by contributing to this striking project any or all of their careers could prove to be very interesting indeed. SSP