Written and Directed by: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, and Daniel Henshall
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"If it's in a word or it's in a look, you can't get rid of The Babadook."
In an ideal world, children live with the comfort that the monsters under their beds arenít real because their parents tell them so. But what happens when that monster under the bed becomes the person who tucks them in at night? What if a womanís maternal instincts have gone haywire through no fault of her own? Thatís the premise of The Babadook, a haunting film that twists childhood trauma into a parental nightmare. Few things are more bone-chilling than a parent and a child simply failing to connect: itís perhaps the ultimate affront to nature, and when a director captures it as starkly as Jennifer Kent does here, it is genuinely unnerving. I may have sworn off ever having children after watching The Babadook.
Sleep is impossible for Amelia Vannick (Essie Davis), a single mother struggling to raise her six-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). If Samuel isnít pestering her about the monsters in his room, then sheís having nightmares about the accident that claimed the life of her husband. Whatís more, the accident occurred as the couple was headed to the hospital to deliver Samuel, whose very existence has become a painful reminder of what Amelia lost. When we meet the two, something is clearly off about their relationship: Amelia might read Samuel a bedtime story, but she seems disinterested. His hugs seem to suffocate her, and the enormous gap between the two as they share a bed speaks volumes.
At the very least, Amelia seems off-put by her sonóat worst, sheís terrified at the prospect of having to live with a child that she simply does not want. Initially, you almost canít blame her. In a daring move, Kent portrays Samuel as a holy terror: his voice is irritating and incessant, he takes homemade weapons to school, he breaks his cousinís nose during a birthday party, and he even interrupts his momís attempt at pleasuring herself. You could be forgiven for mistaking The Babadook for the latest in a long line of creepy kid flicks because it leaves you absolutely convinced that Samuel is some unholy hellspawn destined to terrorize humanity.
What you donít realize here is that Kent has manipulated you into completely sympathizing with Amelia, a mother ready to plunge off into the deep end. The final nudges come from the sudden appearance of Mister Babadook, a mysterious pop-up book featuring ghastly, foreboding imagery of a wraith preying on a family. Any attempts to hide, shred, or burn the book are futileóthe damn thing just keeps returning, and with more, increasingly threatening pages to boot. Itís at this point The Babadook slowly morphs into a disturbing tale of a mother losing both her mind and her will to be a parent. Because youíve spent enough time with Samuel, you share in an exasperation and paranoia that become literalized via the filmís horror movie trappings.
On this surface level, The Babadook is exquisitely crafted: it broods with a thick but shadowy menace, as its monster recedes to the corners, where it lies in wait. Mister Babadook is a German Expressionist creature given form, so it follows that Kent warps reality with light, shadow, and odd angles. Much of the filmís effectiveness rests in the way it coils up in these techniques and takes its time to strike. Appropriately, the fear of the Babadook is more palpable than the Babadook itself, and, pretty soon, viewers and Amelia alike are spotting it everywhere: in the background at a police station, in the silent movies playing on television, creeping up behind the elderly next door neighbor. Whether or not itís real or a figment of Ameliaís frayed imagination is immaterial: clearly, something unnerving is at work, so much so that the film is high strung before that question is ever answered.
As The Babadook wears on, you actually begin to wonder if the title character even needs to be real. After all, the most horrifying stuff here isnít a supernatural threat but very immediate, physical one. The Babadookís encroachment unhinges Amelia, and Davis delivers a terrifying performance. Her outbursts at Samuel might be prompted by the Babadook, but her resentment comes from the very real corners of her mind. When she snaps at her son and verbally abuses him, itís frighteningly authentic in a way these sorts of performances rarely are. Where most maniacal moms are broadly sketched, over-the-top psycho-biddies, Davis remains believably grounded, even when the role demands she go all wild-eyed, stringy-haired psychotic.
More than most films, The Babadook resists a one-dimensional plunge into psychosis by capturing moments of lucidity between violent episodes. Brief, warm moments between Amelia and Samuel develop a complex relationship: there are times when itís obvious she wants to be a good, protective mother, especially when she has to defend him from the likes of her own sister, who says she canít stand to be around either her or Samuel. The next minute, they may be at each otherís throats again. To his credit, Wiseman keeps up with his on-screen mother by heading in the opposite direction: by the end of the film, you realize that heís actually a clever, resourceful kid thatís been dealt a shitty hand in life. It just so happens that you can sort of understand why his mom wants to strangle him sometimes.
Even without its monster, The Babadook would be a chilling portrait of domestic turmoil. With it, the film becomes a thoughtful allegory about how we internalize and manifest demons. Amelia and Samuelís chaotic relationshipóall of their grief, trauma, repression, and resentmentócreeps out in the form of not only the Babadook but also the infestation of bugs that may or may not be nesting behind the wallpaper. Kent coalesces her musings with both an expected confrontation with the monster and a more unexpected coda that firmly cements the true terror of The Babadook: we canít always slay our demonsówe can only live with them. The film ends on a haunting, ambiguous note that leaves viewers with the unsettling implication that Amelia and Samuelís struggle to tame theirs has just begun.
If any recent horror film deserves a one-way ticket to the sort of canonization offered by the Scream Factory treatment, it would be The Babadook. For its home video debut, it arrives with a lavish special edition Blu-ray packed with extras, including an hourís worth of interviews with cast and crew, various featurettes that take viewers on a tour of the set and examine specific effects and stunts, assorted behind-the-scenes footage, a look at the creation of Mister Babadook, deleted scenes, a trailer, and Monster, Kentís original short film that led to The Babadook.
A limited run will also house the case inside of a pop-up slip-cover inspired by the book. Maybe donít show it to your kids. And, if you donít have kids, The Babadook might function as a new method of birth control.
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