The tense, stylized Australian horror film The Babadook, written and directed by Jennifer Kent, is a clever piece of storytelling, and undeniably frightening at times. Already, it’s been heralded by critics as a horror triumph and proclaimed one of the scariest films of all time by no less an authority than Exorcist director William Freidkin. A similar chorus of praise greeted last year’s smart, kinetic haunted house thriller The Conjuring, and like that film, The Babadook has been heralded labeled as part of a broader swerve toward psychological thrills and ‘70s-style practical effects after the seemingly endless onslaught of uber-violent, often humorless spectacles that has defined the genre’s past decade (a trend, oddly enough, that was kicked off by Conjuring director James Wan’s massively influential debut feature, 2004’s Saw).
Director: Jennifer Kent
Producers: Kristina Ceyton, Kristian Moliere
Writer: Jennifer Kent
Cinematographer: Radek Ladczuk
Music: Jed Kurzel
Editor: Simon Njoo
Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Tim Purcell
Premiere: January 17, 2014 - Sundance
US Theatrical Release: November 28, 2014
US Distributor: IFC Films
The Babadook’s remarkably distinctive and fully realized visual style certainly does set it apart from most horror films in recent memory. The film hinges on an uneasy collision of childlike wonder and fractured, oneiric madness, creating an overflowing sense of strangeness and suspense. Along the way, a middle ground opens up between the visceral terror that grounds traditional horror films: a fear of bodily harm or death and the psychological tension of the genre’s more cerebral offerings--a sense of imminent unraveling, of losing oneself forever, of inflicting terrible pain upon others either unknowingly or uncaringly. The Babadook makes this careful trapeze act look effortless, never quite falling into either territory.
The film follows Amelia, a widow working in an old folks’ home, and her anxious, over-imaginative six-year-old son Samuel. Amelia’s husband died in a car crash on the way to the hospital while she was in labor, an event that she relives in vivid yet oddly tranquil dreams (and that Samuel gleefully, obliviously describes to strangers who ask about his dad’s whereabouts). These not-quite-nightmares are not the only things disrupting Amelia’s sleep—Samuel is consumed with fear that monsters are coming to attack him and his mother and insists on sleeping with her, frequently waking up in a panic. His unruly ways extend to his daily life: he constructs weapons to defend himself against intruders and haphazardly practices using them, and his outbursts at school force Amelia to pull him out indefinitely. Before long, Amelia finds herself alienated from her family and neighbors and consumed with trying to control Samuel’s erratic behavior.
Into this queasy, fraught domestic scene comes “the Babadook:” trying to lull Samuel to sleep one night, Amelia pulls a book of the same name off of the shelf. Unfortunately for her, it’s a terrifying, portentous story about a monster hell-bent on tormenting anyone who reads the book, and naturally, Samuel becomes preoccupied with the danger that the Babadook poses. Amelia is dismissive, but as odd coincidences mount over the coming days, she is increasingly overcome with dread and confusion as she begins to suspect that the Babadook is real.
It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that the rest of the film deals with the intertwined question of the Babadook’s existence and of Amelia’s sanity, but that would do a disservice to the intense, harrowing thrills that the film mounts. As much as the plot places Amelia at its center, The Babadook’s formal style—riddled with inventive choices and yet still bound to the familiar grammar of its genre—seems to be informed by Samuel’s perspective. Writer/director Jennifer Kent carefully frames the film’s surreal, shocking events as they might be seen by a child, at the juncture of innocent curiosity and wild imagination. Each scene seems to stand alone as a daydream or nightmare, a building block in the narrative’s fractured escalation to a fever pitch of paranoia and fear.
Like its fellow critics’ darling, The Conjuring, The Babadook doesn’t quite stick the landing. Its climax is disjointed and narratively muddled, albeit visually and formally spectacular. Because of this, the brief, slightly humorous postscript that closes the film—already its most uncharacteristically clichéd section—feels unearned. Nonetheless, The Babadook is one of the smartest and scariest films of the year, and its success bodes well for the horror genre as it looks towards both new and old ideas in a push to redefine itself.