Starring Essie Davies and Noah Wiseman
Directed by Jennifer Kent
MILD SPOILER ALERT
This low budget Australian-made horror doesn't so much take swipes at the established genre, as knowingly eat up chunks of it only to spit out a captivating new take on things. The unusual, memorable, title is immediately vaguely unsettling, because it doesn't mean anything or give away anything of the content of the film. The poster drops a few hints of what's in store.
The film opens with a brief fragment of a dream, of a woman falling; as she lands in her bed she hears a little boy repeatedly calling out "Mum! Mum!" She comes to, to find her son shaking her and trying to wake her. He's been having bad dreams - again. It's a disorientating introduction to what will turn out to be an unsettling tale. The boy, Sam, is a troubled and fearful child; his father was killed in a road accident whilst taking Sam's mother, Amelia, to the hospital to give birth to him. So their household is one which bears Amelia's stress of having to raise a child on her own, and Sam's fragility and guilt at being fatherless. Sam is clingy, often waking in the night, sleeping in Amelia's bed, and needing to be read bedtime stories almost constantly. He's keen on, and an accomplished performer of, magic tricks; but he has a habit of rigging up home-made weapons. He is disruptive in class at school, which adds greatly to Amelia's stress.
One evening Amelia tells Sam he can choose any book from his shelf as his bedtime story. He picks one called "Mr. Babadook", which puzzles Amelia as she hasn't seen it before. It begins:
"If it's in a word, or it's in a look, you can't get rid of the Babadook.
If you're a really clever one and you know what it is to see,
then you can make friends with a special one, a friend of you and me.
His name is Mr. Babadook, and this is his book.
A rumbling sound, the three sharp knocks.
Ba ba-ba DOOK! DOOK! DOOK!
That's when you'll know that he's around.
You'll see him if you look."
The cartoon imagery accompanying these pages shows a menacing black figure, top-hatted, with pointed fingers, emerging from a wardrobe towards a small child. At this point Amelia decides against Mr. Babadook, and stops reading. But it doesn't end there, because once the Bababook knocks, knocks, knocks, you have to let him in, in, in... The image of Mr. Babadook, with his enlarged fingernails, evokes every demon from "A Nightmare on Elm Street" to Struppelpeter. It's clear that this creature - whatever it is - has a hold on this two-person family. Sam insists they read on.
"This is what he wears on top, he's funny don't you think.
See him in your room at night, and you won't sleep a wink."
Amelia stops reading out loud, to Sam's increasing panic, but she reads the following, disturbing, pages to herself.
"I'll soon take off my funny disguise,
(take head of what you've read...)
And once you see what's underneath...
YOU'RE GOING TO WISH YOU WERE DEAD"
Amelia places the book out of reach, on top of a wardrobe; but Sam obsesses about the Babadook, freaking out his school-mates to the extent where he is expelled, and hurting his peers at a birthday party. Amelia's wits begin to fray; it seems she can't even pleasure herself at night without an interruption from her son, climbing into her bed. Sam's violent streak grows more prominent, and he is caught breaking into his late father's study. But, touchingly, he promises to protect his Mother. The book impossibly reappears in Sam's room. Amelia tears it up and burns it. But it reappears on her doorstep, taped back together. Despite her increasingly frustrated and angry assertions that there is no Babadook, Amelia begins to wonder, to doubt, and her uncertainty spins out into a wonderful second-half of the film, as it becomes apparent that maybe the problem doesn't lie with Samuel, but maybe she herself is having serious grief issues about her husband, the grisly nature of whose death is hinted at in a vision she has... Therein lies the sheerly beautiful skill of the storytelling in the film; the focus changes so gradually and subtly between the main characters. Amelia's friends distance themselves from her. Lights start to flicker for no reason, and things start to go bump in the night... Peppered throughout are seemingly insignificant touches - look out for a television news report, for example - which turn out to be relevant to Amelia and Sam's predicament. As with the best Monster films, the Babadook is seen outside of the pages of the book only fleetingly; the terror is implied by mood, lighting and some amazing sound design..
The film is tremendously assured not just in its unfolding narrative, but in its all-round production. The majority of scenes take place within Amelia and Sam's home, itself a strangely timeless, cavernous, Victorian-terrace style house. Polish-born Radek Ladcuk's cinematography plays with light and shadow tantalisingly, and has the disorientating effect of making the house feel simultaneously vast and claustrophobic. The home is supposed to be a place of sanctuary, so its violation adds to the distinct sense of unease. As the actors spend a large part of the film in their night clothes, in the house, at night, there's also a strong feeling of vulnerability absent when they're out and about in town, in the daylight. Ultimately the film succeeds or fails on the strength of its central performances. Essentially it's a two-hander; besides a few subsidiary characters - a kindly old neighbour, a concerned and romantically tentative co-worker - the film rests squarely on the shoulders of Essie Davies as Amelia, and Noah Wiseman as Sam. Both give remarkable performances. Davies chillingly captures the aggression, mental, emotional, and physical deterioration of a woman haunted in the extreme - in the latter case, at one point she starts losing her teeth, as Sam has, creating an unquantifiable bond between Mother and Son. Wiseman, too, is impressively mature; amusingly / glibly (* delete as applicable) described by one reviewer as a cross between Danny from "The Shining" and Kevin in "We Need to Talk About...", he is so much more than that. Reflecting his mother's maelstrom of anxiety and emotion, he effects by turns playfulness, anger, aggression, violence, grief (for the unknown), mania, terror, and ultimately tender concern care and love. Child performers are notoriously hit-and-miss and can easily let a piece down, but Noah Wiseman proves well up to the task. I know that what ends up on screen is very different from what goes on on a film set, but some of the climactic confrontation scenes are so raw and intense to watch, one wonders how he could not be affected in some way.
It's commonly held that horror films "aren't for women" but if ever there was an exception to prove that rule, "The Babadook" is it. Not only is it written and directed by a woman (Jennifer Kent), and its protagonist is a woman, but there's good cause to say that its central concerns - birth, motherhood (the first word spoken is "Mum"), protection, abandonment, wifehood, bereavement, strength, love (the last word spoken is "Sweetheart") - would speak strongly to women. For a film so permeated with dread, the coda is disarmingly bright, and upbeat - albeit with a little twist. This is the final trick the film has up its sleeve, to wrongfoot the viewer with something of a tonal shift when they've barely caught their breath from what's just unfolded on screen.
A deserved winner of Best Film at the Australian Film Institute awards this year - a co-recipient alongside Russell Crowe's stirring directorial debut "The Water Diviner" - the film has also been nominated for and won a host of other critics awards, not least walking away with the Best Horror gong at the UK's prestigious Empire Awards! It's unique, disturbing as well as being scary - note the difference - and ultimately deeply moving. It is a brilliant metaphor for a character's mental state, along similar lines, arguably, to Jeff Nichols' superb 2011 film "Take Shelter". It is without a doubt one of the most memorable films of any genre, let alone horror, of recent years, and just the thought of hearing three slow knocks in the middle of the night is enough to send shivers down the spine...
You may even want to check out the lovingly-created book at http://thebabadook.com/
This is the mild spoiler, by the way:
How can you not simply love a film in which the cute dog gets it?