Director: Jennifer Kent
Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wieseman
Plot: An exhausted mother (Davis) struggles to deal with her hyper-active seven year old (Wieseman) who is convinced they are being stalked by a monster called the Babadook.
The biggest problem with horror movies for me is the lack of strong characters. When making a horror film, so much thought goes into the film’s monster that everything else kind of falls to the ground around it. In the eyes of the producers, as long as the movie makes you jump, then what else do the audiences need? As it stands, the horror genre, while clawing back integrity as every year passes, is still a overlooked cornerstone of cinema, due to the fact it often boasts two-dimensional characters, their only purpose serving as something to get brutally killed off by whatever monster the director has hiding in the shadows. That trend stops with Babadook. In many ways, the horror feels like an afterthought. Sure, this film is scary, but more of the film’s running time is dedicated to exploring the truly unique leads we have in the centre of this horror. Some might argue that the Babadook takes an age to get going, the monster only being mentioned rather than seen, but the joy of the Babadook that the characters are so interesting and appealing, that no one is in any rush to even get to the scary parts of the movie.
Essie Davis plays a single mother, plagued by the memory of her husband being butchered in a car crash, while rushing her to the pregnancy ward. Fast-forward seven years and Amelia, the mother in question, is struggling to summon up any emotion towards her son. This is exasperated by the fact that Samuel is a child so desperate for love and affection that he is regularly erratic and volatile. Their relationship is great in any film, the kind of story that you could imagine someone writing up just in time for the OSCAR buzz. It feels great to have this kind of narrative in a horror film, especially as it really makes you care for the central characters. The mother who cannot love her child is a tricky one to get right, but the clever writing from Jennifer Kent (who also directs with a magnificent eye – every frame is elegant), means that Amelia is always a character we can like. Sometimes it is just enough comedy to lighten the mood (Samuels always says or does the wrong thing, making some moments beautifully awkward), or sometimes it is just the way life falls down around her character. Kent takes time to explore the outside effects of a horror movie. Not only do the family have to deal with the monster hunting them, but Kent also explores how one fits that in with friends, family and work. It is a pleasant slice of intelligence, rarely seen in the genre. Playing Samuel, Noah Wieseman is incredible, jumping from Annoying Horror Movie Child 101 to a surprising source of heart-warming joy. Certain scenes you cannot help but hate the boy, but in the very next scene, he is dressed up as a magician, a smile stretching from ear-to-ear, dedicated to finding that magic trick that will make his mum fall in love with him.
Enter the Babadook. As I said, it doesn’t feature as much as you might want it to. The movie seems more interested in the characters than the Babadook itself, but it actually makes the movie’s monster a lot more prominent. The scares are relegated to a few decent scenes. Insidious tries to scare us every few moments. The Babadook sits back, letting the natural dread of its story do the work for it, and then it emerges from the shadows in well-chosen moments, scaring the living daylights out of its audience. The first reveal sees Amelia looking into her neighbour’s house, admiring the happy residents, only before realising that one of the residents is looking right back at her, complete with a black hat and… the shot cuts away, gone before we can even register what we were looking at. We just saw the Babadook and we still have no idea what it truly looks like. Perhaps, when the movie comes to a close, it doesn’t feel as scary as promised. The Babadook definitely has the resonance to become eerie, but there isn’t that OMG terror that other recent horrors have boasted. You might even leave a little underwhelmed. Then you get home and get into the bed. The darkness brings that movie right back to you in your own house. Every sound could be the three ominous knocks. Was that creak a groaning whisper? Are those clothes hanging up on your bedroom wall really clothes – or are you being hunted?
Final Verdict: The Babadook boasts an imaginative new monster, great characters and Jennifer Kent, who is definitely one to watch over the next few years.