Coming in on a tsunami of hype is the little-Australian horror film that could, The Babadook. The Exorcist director William Freidkin has declared it the most terrifying film he has ever seen. It was audience-voted Best Director (Jennifer Kent), Best Leading Actress (Essie Davis), Best Monster/Creatue and Scariest Film at this year’s Toronto After Dark Film Festival (where we had the pleasure of catching it.) Rolling Stone has called it “one of the most terrifying psychological horror movies in ages.” Our verdict: while not the second coming of horror that some have made it out to be, The Babadook is good. Damn good.
Kids are odd. I was odd. Probably still am. But kids also have a connection to the fertile world of imagination and a wellspring of fears, insecurities and doubts that we as adults, under the twin guises of maturity and bravery, try our hardest to repress. Nonetheless, repression can only work for so long, and for some, repress shit too long and the cauldron boils over into, at best (if it could be even called that) anxiety and depression, and at worst, rage, hysteria and psychosis. It is these weighty themes that are explored in The Babadook.
Amelia is an adult. Samuel is her young son. They are alone in this world since Samuel’s father died violently on the way to the hospital when Amelia was in labour. The still-grieving Amelia is trying her best but parenting is hard and Samuel is certainly not making it easy what with his constant fits, outbursts and insistence that monsters are everywhere. He won’t shut up and has taken to arming himself with makeshift monster-fighting weapons. In short, he is driving poor Amelia f*cking nuts.
Soon Samuel is kicked out of school when one of those weapons is discovered. Come storytime, he pulls an odd red-covered book off the shelf entitled Mister Babadook (an anagram of “A Bad Book”). The book is ominous, violent and scary, filled with morbid illustrations and pop-ups. Soon, shit gets weird. Samuel insists The Babadook is everywhere. Mom tries to destroy the book, but loud knocks on the door cause Amelia to discover the book back and pieced together. Samuel starts to lash out violently and pushes his niece out of a treehouse. He has convulsions and mom starts hearing unbelievably disturbing sounds and experiencing visions of The Babadook made manifest. It isn’t long before Amelia’s relations with her son grow violent and animalistic and her grasp on sanity and reality becomes tenuous and frayed beyond breakage.
The Babadook is pure, psychological horror. The actual creature, realized through practical effects and puppetry and extremely effective sound and light design resembles a surreal, shadowy mix of Coffin Joe and Nosferatu. References and allusions – some overt, some subtle – abound from everything from The Phantom of the Opera to The Big Bad Wolf to Bava’s Black Sabbath to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Polanski’s Repulsion. A heady mix indeed.
But is the film scary? The answer is yes. Not slasher scary, not gory scary, but psychologically scary for The Babadook forces the viewer to confront those unsecured nooks and crannies of our minds that we try to keep locked and hidden away. The places where we, to paraphrase Stephen King, keep the gators who require feeding under lock and key. But beyond giving the viewer a good jump scare or two, The Babadook does what so few horror movies of late do. It makes the viewer think.
**** (out of 5)