27th Aug2014

Frightfest 2014: ‘The Babadook’ Review

by Phil Wheat

Stars: Essie Davis, Daniel Henshall, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McElhinny, Benjamin Winspear | Written and Directed by Jennifer Kent

the-babadook

Amelia (Davis) and her son, Sam, have had a raw deal in life. Her husband Oskar died six years prior while driving her to the hospital pregnant with Sam and his birthday is a particularly painful reminder. But this year things take a turn for the worse. Samuel’ temperament is becoming increasingly more feral and it’s taking its toll on Amelia – who tries to handle Sam with patience, understanding and, eventually, sedatives. And it only gets worse when Amelia reads Samuela a mysterious pop-up children’s book called “Mister Babadook”. The seven-year-olds imagination runs riot and his problems take a much darker turn, nearly getting kicked out of school for bringing Babadook-fighting weapons to class and injuring the daughter of Amelia’s already concerned sister.

At first Amelia tries to explain it all away as Samuel’s coping mechanism given the time of year but as Samuel’s behaviour worsens and she starts to struggle with sleeping Amelia’s mental state begins to crack and she edges closer to a breakdown. But when strange things start to happen around the house Amelia begins to question whether the Babadook a figment of Samuel’s troubled imagination or is there actually something evil lurking inside their house?

The feature debut of writer/director Jennifer Kent, The Babadook is a return to the psychological-led horrors of the likes of Repulsion and The Shining, in which its never really clear – until the very end – whether what we’re seeing is the work of an evil entity or is actually all in the mind of our protagonist. In this case, it’s the idea that the stress and anxiety of the anniversary of a traumatic event, in this case a car crash and subsequent death of Amelia’s husband, can manifest itself as some supposed monster, real or otherwise, all triggered by reading a scary children’s fable (a fantastic nod to the trope of the “evil book” such as Evil Dead‘s Necronomicon).

Why Kent’s feature works, at least for me, is that it keeps you guessing for the majority of the films brief 90 minute running time – time I may add that is not wasted, Kent has pitched the pacing of The Babadook perfectly, there is not an iota of padding within the flick. Guessing whether Samuel (played superbly by a precocious Noah Wiseman) is just an ADD affected little shit. Guessing if Amelia’s sanity will break and she’ll kill Samuel. Guessing if Mister Babadook even exists. And if he does, guessing if and when he’s going to show himself and exact his vengeance on the family.

And for once we have a child actor who isn’t all sweetness and light. Samuel is complete bastard, even before the babadook is introduced into the mix – and honestly, it’s no wonder his mother’s sanity is on edge, mine would be too! However it’s a testament to Kent’s script that even though Samuel’s behaviour is reprehensible the audience still has some empathy for the kid. And when it’s revealed Samuel was right all along and his behaviour is somewhat justified it’s that sliver of empathy that then brings the audience to Samuel’s side when his mother starts to get a little… violent. But this is not young Noah Wiseman’s film. Nor is it the monstrous Mister Babadook’s film. No, this film belongs to Essie Davis as put-upon parent Amelia. She is perfectly cast as a mother who struggles to look after herself, let alone her son. It’s a tour-de-force performance from Davis, who switches from sorrow-filled mother to complete psychopath, fully committing to a role that I’m sure demanded a lot from the actress.

A fascinating look at the terrors of childhood, the loneliness of being a single mother, the burden of guilt, and the trauma of grief, The Babadook is both touching and terrifying in equal measure and is a stunning debut feature for Jennifer Kent, who is definitely one to watch.

**** 4/5

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