The Babadook Review [Sundance 2014]
As is the case with most horror films, especially those that rely on scares not-so-based in reality, suspension of disbelief on the viewer’s part is crucial to the audience’s susceptibility to be terrified. If you let yourself, director Jennifer Kent’s directorial debut, The Babadook, will revert you to a small child, wishing you had a blanket under which to hide as you try to disappear into your seat.
Essie Davis stars in the film as Amelia, a still-grieving widow whose husband died on the same day on which her now 7-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), was born. Samuel has a hard time fitting in with other children, probably because he can’t stop talking about “the monster” and bringing homemade monster-killing weapons to school.
One night when Samuel is allowed to choose which storybook to read before bed, he picks something unexpected off the shelf: a mostly unmarked, untouched pop-up picture-book, entitled “Mister Babadook.” What follows on the pages cements Samuel’s chronic monster-fear and freaks out Amelia herself. Once the book has been read, Amelia’s life is slowly filled with a fantastical presence that gradually forces her to question her safety, her sanity, and ultimately, her ability to protect her son.
The “Babadook” book itself, with its garish pop-ups and cutesy rhymes, is one of the most memorable aspects of the film. The storybook opens at a spooky status that puts Roald Dahl to shame and quickly evolves to a terror tier that would cause any thinking adult to slam it shut and say “never again.” Unfortunately for Amelia, this legend follows a code akin to that of 2002’s The Ring; once you’ve watched the movie, it’s too late. Or in this case, once you’ve read it, “you can’t get rid of The Babadook.”
Crucial to the film’s success is 7-year-old actor Wiseman, who was asked to audition after casting director Nikki Barrett questioned his drama teacher about kids who might be right for the film. With enormous eyes and bushy hobbit hair, he sells the terror of the “monster” he perceives right from the film’s opening. The first time that clever Samuel revealed one of his homemade weapons, I strongly just wanted to give him a bear hug, but alas – you sit in a knowing audience that can only wait for things to get worse.
Wiseman performs remarkably and projects a believable mother-and-son charisma with Davis, with whom he almost splits screen time. This is Wiseman’s professional debut, though if you’re comparing him to the average child actor, you wouldn’t know it. He’s able to convey both a fierce amount of fear for his life and a sense of unconditional love for his mother, selling some of the film’s most personal and psychological moments.
The Babadook is based on Kent’s short film, Monster, though it never feels stretched or desperate for content filler. Davis is the film’s foundation, never wavering in her ability to make you feel Amelia’s grief, her fear, or her passion for her son. The powerful performances of Babadook’s lead actors easily negate the need for the gore and CGI prevalent in most modern horror films. The Babadook doesn’t rely on special effects, and it doesn’t need to. Its “monsters” are more than gruesome enough.
As a fan of the horror genre, friends and family often tell me that they don’t like to watch horror films, not because they don’t enjoy them, but because they fear the childlike nightmares that will come later in the night. A valid concern, although the films that keep you up at night are surely some of the best.
The Babadook is the embodiment of a child’s nightmare. On a shallow level, it preys on the most superficial of fears, such as monsters and scary stories, but just like in the nightmares you remember most, the deepest terror in The Babadook comes from the torturing thought of your loved ones abandoning or being taken from you.
With its whimsically ghoulish creation and frightfully real lead performances, The Babadook feels just like that actual nightmare you once had.