The Babadook ★★★★½

One of the defining truths about horror movies is that the best ones aren't really about monsters, ghosts and ghouls at all, rather what the fear of such spectres does to the human mind. The Babadook, the debut feature from Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent, is the newest evidence of that maxim. It may appear to be a standard horror movie concept - a terrified mother, her slightly creepy young son, both being terrorised by something that goes bump in the night, but peel under the surface, look beyond the veil, far deeper layers of subtext and symbolism become clear and very swiftly elevate Kent's picture into far more than your standard horror movie trope fayre. The Babadook indeed in reality is far more of a carefully escalating chiller, one utterly riven with creeping fear and tension that builds not through any overt use of supernatural weirdness, but rather the steady, pulsating destruction of one woman's psyche. It may not necessarily be as terrifying as you may have heard but by golly at times this is a masterclass in how to ratchet up unbearable levels of concentrated expectation.

From a production perspective, it's a remarkably assured debut from Kent, who manages to create a piece of work that is riven with influences as iconic as The Shining and as far back as FW Murnau, yet at the same time remains defiantly original in face of decades of well worn tropes; she crafts a remarkable sense of atmosphere around her picture, one she originally wanted to shoot in black & white to convey the sense of pre-50's B-movie aesthetic in the colour drained setting and intentional use of unnerving stop motion effects. Her primary setting is as pivotal a character as her central twosome; a large Victorian terrace, almost anachronistic in terms of its Australian setting (though the film could, accents aside, frankly have been set anywhere), one of those huge, imposing, large ceiling homes with stone walls and a hint of decay - everything about it reflects coldness, a sense of creeping darkness, a feeling of degradation and that's completely intentional. Kent uses her sets, her design, her photography in order to help reflect the emotion and psyche of Amelia, the central mother in the story, and does so with a consummate skill beyond her experience; her years learning a lo-fi perspective from Lars con Trier pay off here in how The Babadook uses its locations alongside its characters to enhance the dread, ramp up the drawn out sense of isolation, of frustration, of complete psychological breakdown that is crucial to the narrative and the ultimate reveal of what the titular 'Babadook' indeed is.

That breakdown comes through Essie Davis' central mother and she characterises her quite brilliantly; she gives a magnificently wrought performance that never tips into melodrama or outright silliness, Kent's exemplary script constructing a woman haunted by deep loss, holding everything together by an absolute thread, and Kent ultimately pushes her to absolute breaking point thanks to stresses of her house, work, family, of course the titular Babadook and indeed her son, which build to a potent and powerful crescendo. Said son, played by young talent Noah Wiseman, has more than a little Danny Torrance about him - wide eyed, lank haired, unnerving in that blend of childlike innocence with a spooky connection to the supernatural lurking beneath; his conviction in the existence of the Babadook as a living, breathing entity speaks to the classic childhood fears of monsters under the bed, inside the wardrobe, and that biggest of fears - losing your mother. Fear drives Kent's film not just from a visual and auditory perspective (her piece filled with building orchestral themes or songs that suddenly cut out, enhancing the layers of intensity) but also from a character angle - Samuel fears the monster taking his mother away while Amelia fears losing her mind, already shattered after losing her husband. Grief, depression, anxiety, exhaustion, all play as key a part in the creeping sense of terror that exudes throughout the film as the primal, turn of the century Gothic, Nosferatu-esque Babadook itself. That's the key itself to why Kent's film is so successful - the horror, the terror, is incidental to the crumbling psyche of her characters & the power of their central, fragmented and troubling relationship.

Dripping with subtext and symbolism, The Babadook may not necessarily reinvent the horror genre but Jennifer Kent without doubt injects it with fresh impetus. Her picture has so many layers that deepen it beyond the cheap scares or shock tactics many lesser horror films these days employ, wearing her exemplary influences clearly to show while honouring their legacy, drawing out crucially a fantastically well developed mother-son dynamic that refuses to pull punches in being devastating, terrifying and savage. It's not the monsters under the bed that will terrify you here, rather the monsters in the mind, the spectre of what loss, grief and pain can make manifest. Along the way, Kent deserves to be noted as a thrilling new filmmaker who managed to take primal fears and terrors of childhood and parenting and spin them into a fresh, original take on the monster movie genre. Don't go and fear an exciting new spin, open the door and let the baba dook dook dook in...

AJ liked these reviews

All