Jennifer Kent’s directorial debut, The Babadook, is an unnervingly taut and psychologically tense exploration of post-traumatic distress and maternal despair. Blending genuinely thrilling set-piece terror with a sense of melancholy and hopelessness, it’s one of the most satisfying and thematically fascinating horror movies of recent years.
Amelia (Essie Davis), still reeling from the death of her husband en route to the maternity ward, is grief-ridden and struggling to cope with her perpetually difficult and troubled son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Samuel’s erratic behaviour: socially inept, aggressive to his classmates and in near-constant fear of imagined terrors, has driven Amelia almost to breaking point and into the dispiriting fug of post-natal depression. Amelia’s few remaining strands of sanity are tested with the unexplained arrival of a macabre and disturbing pop-up book entitled Mister Babadook which documents, with terrific style and in gruesome detail, the titular monster’s attempts to enter and terrorise a house not unlike their own.
Naturally, the unstable little boy begins to believe the Babadook really is trying to gain entrance to the house in an attempt to kill them. Amelia’s despair at Samuel’s relentless hysteria begins to morph into fear as it becomes clear that there is a malicious force at work.
Kent neatly plays with a sense of ambiguity, blurring the line between the real and imagined. Her protagonist is a mother failing to connect with her child; the sense of loss and misappropriated anger at the death of her husband, fuelling her restless depression creates an unnerving and dangerous mother/son dynamic. Theirs is a house haunted by resentment and seemingly on the brink of an explosive, violent confrontation.
Samuel is by turns unremittingly irritating and wretchedly vulnerable, avoiding the easy option of presenting him as a whiter-than white-innocent. Essie Davis’s excellently-harassed mother gives plenty of cause for sympathy, whilst remaining a manifestly dangerous element.
Mister Babadook may be a psychological monster (and I say may be psychological) but there is still a tangible monster to be seen, heard and feared. Kent avoids any creature-feature pitfalls with a deliberately vague, low-tech representation relying on shadows, sounds and weird animation, rather than outright physical horror to disturb. Taking cues from the likes of Robert Wise’s The Haunting, Kent’s monster is ambiguous in every sense.
The Babadook is elegantly simplistic, fascinating and chilling. Filled with conflicting, depressive maternal bitterness and soaked in loss, this is a smart and devastatingly effective piece of horror filmmaking.
Genre: Horror, Drama Distributor: eOne UK Release Date: 24th October 2014 (UK) Rating: 15 Director: Jennifer Kent Cast: Essie Davis, Daniel Henshall, Tiffany Lyndall-Knight