Oct-horror-ber is long over at this point, but the hits just keep on coming. Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival back in January, The Babadook was one of the most popular films at the fest. Gaining a reputation for being truly frightening, the Australian film has been building steam ever since. Over the weekend The Babadook finally saw limited release in the United States. A wider release will be forthcoming, I’m sure, as this movie will most definitely be a hit.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widow and a single mother struggling to raise her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Samuel doesn’t make things easy on her, however, as he is prone to being victimized by the monsters of his own imagination. Samuel is a bright child, and his efforts to protect himself (and his mother) from perceived threats often gets him in trouble. One night Samuel finds a book in his room called The Babadook, about a boogeyman-type creature. Amelia thinks better of reading the story, but the damage is done and Samuel is irreparably scared. Samuel begins seeing the Babadook – a shadowy figure in a top hat with long claws – and his inability to fall asleep rubs off on Amelia as well. Her initial assumption that it is all in Samuel’s head starts to wane as Amelia begins having visions of the figure herself.
Much like with a comedy, it is hard to objectively determine if a horror movie has achieved its inherent goal, and while I believe it has, it will be much easier to talk about the concrete aspects of the film that go so right. The first two checks in the “pro” column are the performances by Davis and Wiseman. Despite having no children of my own (“that I know of” -every idiot ever), Davis’s portrayal of Amelia totally portrays what a trying experience it can be. She is solely responsible for Samuel’s well-being, and she resents him for that. Her husband died the day Samuel was born – she has been a mother in every moment since, so she has never had a chance to properly grieve. The fatigue that Davis plays so well has been growing in Amelia for years, and it’s reaching a tipping point. This is almost understandable when the audience is confronted with Samuel. He is precocious and frustrating at first, gratingly cute and yearning for attention. But Wiseman shows an impressive range in the film, as his performance must shift from annoying to admirably tenacious in some really subtle ways. Samuel is never fully unlikable, but he gets easier to like as the film goes on.
Writer-director Jennifer Kent accomplishes this task through an interesting protagonist switch around the mid-point of the movie. The Babadook itself is nebulous and hard to define, and it does the most damage in the psychological effect it has on Amelia. She goes from an understandably vexed mother to an unreasonable tyrant, while Samuel becomes more sympathetic. It is a really confident accomplishment by a director with no other features to her name.
The whole movie boils down to this relationship between a mother and her son, and how a foreign invader further complicates an already complex dynamic. Even with the inclusion of one or two jump scares, Kent manages to make The Babadook quite scary, with the help of ambiguous editing tricks and grinding, Eraserhead-esque sound design, both of which help put the viewer in Amelia’s mindset. That mind is not a safe place to be, even for Amelia. When a mother’s perspective is already so skewed, who needs a monster?