Jennifer Kent’s feature directorial debut is a rare example of a modern horror film in which the filmmaker takes advantage of the vast opportunities that can be utilized in the genre instead of relying on familiar tropes that condescend to the target audience. The Babadook uses the dark fairy tale premise as a framing device to explore philosophical issues through Amelia (Essie Davis), a widowed single mother raising troubled six-year-old Samuel (Noah Wiseman), and through Amelia’s point of view, Kent gradually takes the audience through a descent into madness and psychological warfare.
Six years after losing her husband, Amelia is struggling to raise Samuel, whose out-of-control behavior is becoming a burden on their relationship and causes segregation between family and social acquaintances. Amelia reads to Samuel at night to calm him to sleep; a disturbing children’s storybook called Mister Babadook appears in his room one night and the lurid text complimented with creepy imagery unsettles Amelia, but she eventually gives into Samuel’s demands and grants his wishes of finishing the book. Samuel has been plagued by horrific night terrors and is immediately convinced that the Babadook is the creature he has been dreaming about. Rightfully skeptical at first, Amelia soon catches glimpses of the creature herself, and as Mr. Babadook’s presence begins invading their lives and becomes a possessive influence on her behavior, the spooky entity from the book becomes a terror to be reckoned with internally and physically in their home.
Kent is more interested in maintaining an atmosphere of dread than focusing on using predictable scare tactics that genre fans might expect. The committed and outstanding performances of Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman are the heart and anchor that carries the first two thirds of the film – their relationship, which can certainly draw comparisons to Jack and Danny Torrance in The Shining, is powerful, and it’s their chemistry and struggle Kent wants her audience to invest in. Without the intense and dedicated performance from Davis set against the naturalistic emotional performance from Wiseman, that approach wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does. Essie Davis goes to dark places emotionally with her performance and her physical dedication displays a wide range of talent that proves she’ll be an actress that everyone will want to keep an eye out for in the future. Wiseman deserves equal praise for his raw bursts of angst that seamlessly flows with his natural despair, and every state of emotion that this young actor channels to the screen comes across as authentic and genuine.
As the film heads towards the climax, the story’s perspective shifts in a way that doesn’t completely work, and unfortunately the story falls victim to some conventions that deal with putting the presence of the titular monster in the foreground of the story. When Amelia becomes completely held hostage to the threatening entity and goes full on “Heeere’s Johnny!” crazy towards her son, it soon switches gears into a chase scenario where Samuel’s defensive reactions seem to be inspired by Kevin McCallister in Home Alone. At this point the film descends into a repetitive cycle that thankfully is redeemed by an insightful ending that reshapes the entire idea of Mr. Babadook in an enlightening perspective and wraps up the metaphorical subtext in a meaningful way.
Kent has made a memorable impact with her debut feature in the horror genre and even though it doesn’t completely live up its full potential, there’s no questioning that she’s a filmmaker with craft and skill – I’m confident that she’s going to be a director that will be thoroughly discussed in the near future. I respect the intellectual approach that’s taken with the narrative (until that unravels towards the climax), but the two leads absolutely sell the grief and trauma that they’re both experiencing and that’s what will leave a lasting impression on viewers far beyond the supernatural concept. I will say, though, that the storybook that’s the centerpiece for the film is iconic and genuinely creepy, and that won’t be forgotten either. The Babadook is a journey through the mental descent of hell that dares you to keep it out of your dreams after it gets inside your head.
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