Directed by: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Tiffany Lyndall-Knight
"If it's in a word or it's in a look, you can't get rid of The Babadook!" That's the portentous line that spells terror for a single mother and her troubled son in Jennifer Kent's Antipodean horror, which has been gathering rave reviews across the global festival circuit. Kent's feature debut is an expansion of her 2005 short, Monster, and while it has its flaws, The Babadook is a highly accomplished debut, one that marks Kent as a fresh talent worth paying attention to.
Driving through a treacherous storm to a maternity hospital results in the death of Amelia's (Davis) husband, before she gives birth to their son, Samuel (Wiseman). Six years later, Samuel is a troubled kid, terrified of the monsters he believes are lurking beneath his bed and hiding in his closet. It's becoming an increasing strain for Amelia, who herself is still struggling to get over that fateful night six years prior. The situation escalates when Samuel asks his mother to read a bedtime story from 'Mister Babadook', a mysterious pop-up book that seems to have appeared in their home sans explanation. With its doom laden illustrations, based around the top-hatted, cloaked figure to which it owes its name, the book sends Samuel into a fit of terror, causing Amelia to promptly dispose of it. Despite her efforts, Amelia has as much luck getting rid of the book as George C Scott had with that damn soccer ball in The Changeling.
When we think of Aussie movies, we usually conjure up images of vast sun-blistered landscapes, but Kent sets most of her movie in a claustrophobic suburban home in an anonymous modern city. The production design is outstanding here, with Amelia's house decked out in lurid shades of blue, creating a stifling atmosphere that's reminiscent of the work of the Italian master of gothic horror, Mario Bava, whose Black Sabbath can be seen here playing on a TV at one point.
Throughout its runtime, the movie keeps us guessing as to whether its title demon is a genuine paranormal entity, or a figment of the bonded imaginations of Amelia and her son. There are clues that suggest the latter, like the resemblance between Mister Babadook and Samuel's father's magician's outfit, and Amelia's repeated viewings of late night classic horror movies. Though Kent keeps things ambiguous, this reviewer is leaning towards The Babadook as providing a horror riff on The Usual Suspects.
Much of the movie plays out in similar fashion to We Need to Talk About Kevin, as Amelia struggles to control her wayward son, and this portion is the film's strongest. In the final act, the movie loses its grip on us, trading psychological drama for derivative schlock; we've seen characters vomiting blood and pulling out their teeth quite enough, thank you.
Australian cinema has always straddled a line between European arthouse and American commercialism. The Babadook is at its most effective when aiming for the former, and captures the essence of Polanski and Bava. In its final act, however, it cheapens itself by dealing in the cheap thrills of recent Hollywood genre efforts.
By Eric Hillis