The Babadook is a rare horror film that contains a very meaningful message, and is one of the best horror experiences in recent years. It will frighten, unsettle and make hearts race on several occasion.
Following the story of single mother Amelia (Essie Davis), The Babadook explores the crumbling psyche of Amelia as she struggles to raise her troubled son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) after witnessing the horrific death of her husband, Robbie. Whilst dealing with her troubled and sometimes dangerous son, Amelia discovers a book titled ‘The Babadook’, and soon discovers this is unsuitable reading material for any age.
This book acts as an excellent introduction to the titular character. There is nothing creepier than a child’s book being turned into a dark and twisted reflection of a children’s story. It is like taking ‘ring around roses’ and playing it over a graphic torture scene. It is an incredibly effective technique: reaching into the audience’s memories to a time they felt the safest, comforted by bedtime tales, and then slowly allowing a twisted reflection to take shape. Rather than relying on cheap jump scares, The Babadook builds an atmosphere horrific yet with subtle imagery, and herein lies the film’s greatest strength.
Generally speaking, horror can be broken up into two different categories; gore and psychological. Certainly over the last year, mainstream psychological horror has been reduced to little more than a fair ground ride of jump scares. The absence of these in The Babadook is a breath of fresh air for the horror genre.
Yet this imagery and atmosphere created would have fallen short if not for the tremendous leading performances of Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman. Essie Davis already has a fairly established acting career having appeared in the two Matrix sequels, Burning Man, as well as having a fairly well established television career in Australia.
Yet it is Noah Wiseman on his very first feature film debut who steals the show. The genre has never been shy to use child actors in key roles. Usually their performances are quite irritating or they are written as some sort of saviour who always knows what to do because they have had the most exposure to the monster and Insidious 2, one of the better horror films in recent years, was guilty of this. The latter is certainly used in The Babadook, but it is all done in a way that represents Noah as a scared child worried for his mother, rather than as someone to beat the monsters, although aided by some excellent writing, it is Noah’s performance that sells the role by acting like a frightened child that you come to care for. At 7 years old, Noah Wiseman certainly has a promising future in acting.
A stand out scene and exceptional example of Noah’s talents is a scene that comes just before the half way mark. It works on the standard horror cliché – the child sees the demon when the mother cannot. What moves this beyond the cliché is the sheer terror in Noah’s eyes; his screams and the resulting conclusion of such an episode is just incredible to watch. This is without a doubt the best performance by a child actor in a particular scene that I have ever seen.
Not only is this an incredibly strong debut for Noah Wiseman, but this is also the first feature film written and directed by the Australian born Jennifer Kent. Although the film does suffer from some poor stunt work due to such a low budget, the strong story and masterful direction is the real draw. The writing is full of realistic dialogue and subtlety written horror.
But The Babadook contains an overarching theme that is only apparent come the ending of the film. This is not a horror film about a monster. Instead, this is an incredibly intelligent look at the causes and consequences of depression. The mother experiences an incredibly traumatic event and as a result, is left isolated. If this wasn’t enough, she also has to raise a troubled and sometimes violent child by herself.
These are perfect breading grounds for depression that the director personifies in The Babadook, and this metaphor is personified strongly through the character of the mother. The Babadook creature comes on gradually, causing stress and worry, and the Babadook increasingly begins to influence the mother’s actions until it eventually takes complete hold. It is then up to her son to pull his mother out from the Babadook’s sway.
The eventual climax of all of this may at first disappoint, yet in the context just described it makes perfect sense, and the result is a satisfying and thought provoking ending that stays with you for days after. The Babadook is a masterclass in horror making, and one that I hope mainstream horror starts taking inspiration from. It is not without its clichés, but it demonstrates how those clichés can be used in an incredibly effective way.
For all horror fans, The Babadook is a must watch.