The Babadook (2014)
(15) Running time: 93 minutes
Director: Jennifer Kent
Writer: Jennifer Kent
Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Tim Purcell
Reviewed by: Matt Wavish
Coming with a wealth of critical acclaim, Jennifer Kent’s astonishing debut is a strange horror film, and while I wouldn’t go as far to say it was an enjoyable experience (it can be quite a struggle in parts), you cannot fault Kent’s efforts here. The Babadook is a horror film which turns the tables on the usual genre rules (here the Mother loses it, rather than being the usual anchor for the family), and conjures up a creepy to the extreme atmosphere, and delivers a genuinely chilling monster which is sure to haunt your nightmares long after the closing credits.
Kent’s film keeps things simple: this is a no fuss, not over complicated tale of terror told in a single house (bar a few scenes at a family birthday and at school) and involving just two key characters and one horrible monster. Simplicity is key to the film’s success, and is also the main reason less patient viewers may find trouble finishing the film. This is no Insidious, no full on gore fest, The Babadook relies on a very long build up of atmosphere and characterisation, and this in turn allows Kent to switch the films characters half way through, creating a powerful, intense and quite emotional and ferocious finale that can sit alongside some of the best horror has to offer. You may not enjoy the film, but you will certainly not forget it.
The film focuses on single Mother Amelia (Essie Davis) and her rather troubled Son Samuel (an astonishing Noah Wiseman). The Father died when Samuel was born, and this has lead to “the boy” being a little, shall we say, different. He has trouble at school, has a wild imagination, and spends his days building weapons (which includes a crossbow), which are a huge danger to himself and everyone around him (the boy has a temper!), and very unsettling when we see him aiming these weapons at imaginary monsters. One night he requests his Mum reads a new book found on a shelf of their rather large home, and the book is titled The Babadook.
Warnings come within the book that if you let The Babadook in, you will be terrified by what you see underneath, and chilling illustrations in the book itself hint at some very dark times ahead once the monster has been “let in”. Kent relies on an old school style to bring her nightmares to life, and the use of natural and faded colours bring on feelings of being in a real life nightmare full of panic. Samuel can see The Babadook, while Amelia believes it is all in his head, resulting in a number of blow outs between the two, and some genuinely unsettling moments of madness from Samuel. Kent asks a lot from her cast, especially Wiseman, and all deliver powerful, perfect performances. I have never seen a child actor deliver a character driven performance as good as this, and Wiseman’s incredible portrayal of a disturbed child will irritate you to the point of walking out for the first half, and then bring out all sorts of emotions later on as you begin to feel sorry for him, and worry for his safety. Davis is flawless as the Mother who begins questioning her own sanity, and her performance just might be the best performance of the year in terms of horror films.
Kent’s tight, taut direction builds a wonderful sense of dread as The Babadook closes in on his prey, and when the scares come, they really deliver, but in a very odd sort of way. Whereas most directors would scare and cut quickly, Kent likes to hold it there for a bit, and extends moments of terror, or delivers a jump scare in the last place you expected. This film does not play by the rules, and results in a gradual decent into madness and paralysing fear. Just the thought of this hideous monster lurking in the shadows is enough to put even the hardened horror fan on edge, and boy does Kent like her use of shadows. We spend much of the films terror moments simply staring into blackness, waiting for something to appear, and these moments really unsettle. Kent uses hideous noises, with thunderous sound effects, and a terrifying voice for The Babadook to build on her already unsettling tale of a monster lurking, waiting to pounce on his victim, and wreck havoc.
However, this is a brave, inventive horror that doesn’t quite play out as you would expect, and the ending is slightly baffling. You will feel like you’ve been through an emotional, soul destroying experience come the end as Kent wraps up her film in a bizarre way that was totally unexpected, yet the performances from both Wiseman and Davis make it all seem almost real. The film works on many levels, but while Kent’s direction is the key, it is the performances of not only her leading actors, but even the support actors, which turn this film into something really special. The acting is top notch, and allows the viewer to really buy into this freaky, disturbing story which plays out almost like a children’s horror tale, but with a very adult theme.
The Babadook announces his coming by knocking, and while knocking is no mystery to horror fans, Kent manages to make them sound far more threatening than any other film from our beloved genre. The Babadook himself is a truly wonderful and terrifying creation, and the first comparison which springs to mind is that nightmarish advert for Smirnoff involving The Judderman. In Kent’s nightmare, our monster is presented almost like a puppet at times, while at others he spreads his hideously dark wings, or flaunts his frightening long finger nails. In a black hat and cloak, everything about this new horror icon is unsettling, and Kent has given fans a real boogeyman for today’s generation, and one I really hope to see again.
The film is not quite as flawless as some critics have said, and while the film really gets under the skin, it can be a difficult watch at times. The first half is very slow, and while Kent delivers some wonderful editing making each scene almost attack the one before, the pace is made hard to withstand as you try to desperately deal with the madness of Samuel. Your hate for him in the beginning WILL try your patience, yet this is a powerful, important part of the films story, and I believe you are meant to hate him to start with, making the eventual finale all the more emotional. The ending for me also left a bit of a sour taste as it felt like there was more to say, and in all honesty I wanted more.
Brilliant as this film is, I don’t feel it reached its full potential, which is a shame because here we have a genuinely creepy new boogeyman to fill our nightmares, and a genuine new talent within the horror genre in Jennifer Kent. The Babadook is not perfect, but it is brave, ambitious and different, and in today’s deeply annoying world of money grabbing sequels and remakes, an original idea in horror is becoming more and more a rarity, and for that reason alone The Babadook should demand your respect. Personally, I am very excited to see what Kent does next, and I would also welcome another visit from The Babadook, and before you tell me I just moaned about sequels, I complained about money grabbing sequels. If there is a story out there which requires further development, then I welcome it, and The Babadook certainly deserves another outing.