Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is a socially awkward young boy who is quite content playing with himself, building weapons, and living in a fantasy world. His mother Amelia (Essie Davis) is struggling to cope with looking after an eccentric young boy on her own. While she has a close sister who tries to help out Samuel’s odd behaviour means that her patience and generosity is slowly wearing thin. One night when Amelia asks Samuel to pick a book from the shelf for her to read he returns with Mister Babadook. Inside the blood-red cover is a beautifully hand drawn pop-up book about a creature called the Babadook. What starts as reading like a children’s book soon turns sinister and Amelia swiftly abandons the creepy tale.
Soon Samuel’s games involve the invisible figure of the Babadook and he continually insists that he is not imagining the creature. As Samuel’s delusions grow Amelia struggles to keep control of her son amid violent outbursts and spooky goings on. Before too long Amelia has to admit that the Babadook is not just a fictional creature residing within a children’s book but a very real force that is living in her house and one that means to do her harm. As Amelia battles against something she can hardly believe is real Samuel finds himself at risk, not just from the monsters he has long feared but from his emotionally exhausted and once-loving mother.
If it’s in a word. Or it’s in a look. You can’t get rid of… the Babadook. So what can you do?
The modern method for producing a horror film is to make your feature a found footage horror and to rely on jump scares to get your scare quotient. If you want an audience to scream you just need a long period of quiet followed by a loud band and someone rushing towards, past, or away from the camera. Thankfully writer & director Jennifer Kent has decided to buck the contemporary trend in favour of more traditional and deep-seated frights. The Babadook is genuinely terrifying and the scares don’t always come from sudden noises but from the slow and sustained building of tension and the unrelenting anticipation of something absolutely horrendous happening.
The story of Amelia and Samuel is tough enough before the Babadook comes on the scene. Their relationship is one clearly filled with love but Samuel’s allegedly bad behaviour is clearly putting a strain on his mother who is finding solo parenting to be too much work. In the film’s opening Davis excellently plays the role of overworked mother and brilliantly portrays a woman’s descent into mania as she tries to protect the one person she cares about from a supernatural force. As the film progresses and her mental state deteriorates Davis paints a woman at her weakest, one who is susceptible to possession, and then one possibly of danger to her son. Meanwhile young Mr Wiseman puts in an impressive show as the excitable young boy who has trouble relating to other children but no problem befriending the monster who lives in his wardrobe. The two leads give the film its heart and a reason for the audience to worry. A horror is all the more scary when you care about the lives at stake.
Throughout most of The Babadook I was incredibly tense. Since he first appeared as a drawing in pop-up form I was dreading the appearance of the Babadook for real. Obviously the eventual appearance could never live up to the fear that not seeing a monster can bring but in his own unique way Mister Babadook was frightening to behold and to imagine beholding. In fact as I searched for images to put in this review, while alone at home at night, I successfully managed to give myself the creeps all over again.
The Babadook is a well crafted, lovingly designed, and properly acted horror film that will have you checking out the shadows on your way home. With Hollywood failing to bring much to the horror table it took an Australian film to remind everyone why they are scared of the dark again.
The Babadook is in UK cinemas from 24th October 2014.