Australia | 2014 | Directed by Jennifer Kent
Logline: A single mother, plagued by the violent death of her husband, battles with her son's fear of a monster lurking in the house, but soon discovers a sinister presence all around her.
Jennifer Kent is an actress-turned-director, and like most of those that have made the same transition, her understanding of the craft and discipline of acting has made sure she elicits exceptional performances from her actors. Her debut feature is a showcase of exemplary acting from an adult and a child, made all the more powerful by clever shooting and editing, since The Babadook is quite the nightmare material that would’ve given any seven-year-old the serious heebie-jeebies.
Essie Davis, most recently notable in the brilliant Burning Man, and the superb television mini-series The Slap (both 2011), plays Amelia, a widow and mother-at-the-end-of-her-tether. Seven years after she lost her husband, Oskar (Benjamin Winspear), the father of Samuel (Noah Wiseman), her son, the grief is still preventing her from living the social life she deserves. Young Sam’s behaviour is troubling. His overactive imagination is beginning to show tears at the sides of sanity, as he is convinced a beast of sorts is living under his bed, and, as a result both mum and son are losing sleep.
To complicate matters, there’s the children’s book that has creeped onto the bedroom shelf, “Mister Babadook”, a grim pop-up fable that treads very much from the darkness. Amelia tries to hide it, but it makes more than just its literary presence known. Soon enough the tenebrous supernatural entity from the book has permeated the household and it’s by no means chanting a lullaby.
Kent made a short, Monster, back in 2005, and it’s a monochromatic gem, rather creepy, but infused with a sly black sense of humour that rears its head at film’s end. Kent has spread that short’s dark cape into an impressive feature with a stunning use of a very modest budget. The art direction is terrific, all muted greys, blacks, and charcoal hues – especially in the home where most of the movie takes place. Mister Babadook’s design (Tim Purcell plays the black creature-figure, as he did in the short) is fantastic, as is the titular pop-up book paper engineering.
Much of the way Kent directs reminds me of the nightmarish elements that made Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on so powerful. And, even Dario Argento could take note of Kent’s inventive and effective use of atmosphere and suggestion, something that has been missing from the Italian master’s oeuvre for more than twenty years!
I was really having a great time with The Babadook, especially loving Jed Kurzel’s classic score (can Kurzel do a hat-trick, having also brilliantly scored Snowtown?), until the last quarter of the movie when the spectre’s malevolent presence began to dissipate and that wonderfully dark atmosphere began to clear. The reason? The power of love. Yup, that ol’ chestnut; the same nugget that saved – but in horrorphile’s eyes emasculated - The Conjuring. And, curiously, both movies are similar in their Neil Gaiman-esque creepiness, even genuinely frightening in moments. Such a pity those darkly bellowing clouds of imaginative horror have become morning mist by the end of the movie.
It’s not that I’m cynical (well, I can be), but movies like The Babadook and The Conjuring could be up there with the very best, if only they played out their denouements in the same way as movies such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, The Thing, The Descent, Martyrs. You get my drift? To be a True Believin’ horror movie there’s got to be darkness at the end of the tunnel.
You can’t get to tame the beast.
Watch Jennifer Kent's Monster short: