Country: Australia / Canada
Production Companies: Causeway Films, Smoking Gun Productions
Writer: Jennifer Kent
Director: Jennifer Kent
Cast: Essie Davis – Amelia, Noah Wiseman – Samuel, Hayley McElhinney – Claire
Rating: 4 / 5
It’s funny the different things people find scary. I, for example, am completely terrified of dinosaurs. Jurassic Park (1993) is one of my favourite films, and this is very much because it’s one film I find genuinely frightening. Other people will scoff at the thought of Alien (1979) being scary because it’s about an alien, and then someone else will refuse to watch a horror movie like Scream (1996), as lunatics and serial killers actually exist.
Then there’s the ghost story.
Ghost stories can get to you because a good one will carefully straddle reality and the extraordinary; just as Jennifer Kent does with her debut feature film, The Babadook.
The film focuses solely on a mother, Amelia (Davis) and her son, Samuel (Wiseman) who are still adjusting to life together after the loss of Samuel’s father in a devastating car crash. Amelia works as a carer for the elderly and is struggling to come to terms with life without her husband. Samuel has become obsessed with magic and fighting invisible monsters, much to his mother dismay, and it looks as if she is losing control of him. As the two push their relationship to its brink, what appears to be an innocent children’s story, The Babadook, adds a whole new dimension of fear to Amelia’s motherhood.
Kent’s narrative is genius. She invites the audience to watch the unravelling of a young mother, which at times can be heart-breaking to watch, but the genius of it all is asking the audience why these things are happening to Amelia and Samuel. As with many great ghost stories, the question is: can any of this be real?
The results of Kent’s The Babadook are wonderful, and there are some standout moments which made me physically gasp and shudder. Davis’ portrayal of Amelia is outstanding, and the connection she makes with the audience is what propels the film, and the decaying of her character is utterly disturbing. Alongside her is Wiseman as a young Samuel, who I think outdoes many of the other child horror stars of recent years. Somehow, he manages to balance vulnerability and total menace in a way many adults could never master. In one scene you can view him as a terrified child, and in another you could swear he was some sort of demon. It’s extremely impressive.
Aside from the central performances, the orchestration of the sound effects is probably the best thing about the film, as well as the art design. The Babadook ‘creature’ or ‘ghost’ is unforgettable – I’m sure it will be a Halloween costume favourite for years to come. The book itself and the home inhabited by Amelia, Samuel and The Babadook all unite in one artistic vision which is truly unsettling and, again, an unforgettable identity alongside the visualisation of The Babadook itself.
In terms of sound, the film achieves a chilling voice for their Babadook, and is consistent is using sound to add new layers of atmosphere for the audience, while also building new foundations for fear.
Overall, The Babadook is a magnificent achievement and it’s an even greater achievement in my eyes because it is written and directed by a woman, with a female lead character.
However, I have to be honest here and share my experiences as a viewer without bias.
I do feel like The Babdook suffered a little from its hype. Before its release, critics were shouting from the rooftops about Kent’s film and how it was terrifying. The marketing campaigns clung tightly to a quote from The Exorcist (1973) director, William Friedkin in which he called it: ‘the scariest film I’ve ever seen.’ That’s some serious endorsement.
And so, when I finally got to see the film, I did have high expectations. The fact is, I admire it for everything it gets right, but I can’t say it truly scared me. That’s not to say it was in any way a bad experience, because it was a fantastic experience, but I was expecting to be checking my bedroom before I went to sleep, and studying the shadows to make sure they weren’t something more ominous.
I think in my case, as a horror fan, I had been bombarded by quotes and stills before the film’s release (as I imagine will be the case with The Human Centipede: Final Sequence over the next few months…), and though I didn’t read any full reviews, I still knew too much. However, I would still say The Babadook is a near perfect horror film and would recommend it highly, it just may not be the scarefest you were promised.
For me, The Orphanage (El orfanato, 2007), from Spanish director, J.A. Bayona, and with Guillermo Del Toro as executive producer, is still one of the greatest modern ghost stories on film. It’s very similar in terms of plot, with a mother and son at the centre of the narrative, but Bayona plays on the clichés of a ghost story in such a way that the haunting becomes recognisable and foreboding, without entering into parody. It also builds to an important climax which has remained with me to this day, whereas I feel The Babadook lacks sincerity in the finale, but that is, without question, open to interpretation.
I cannot emphasise how incredible the lead performances in The Badabook are, and what a joy it is to watch an original work of horror that gets so, so much right. This is a film about loss, grief, sanity, maternal instincts and those moments when we look at our loved ones and question if they would ever really hurt us.
They wouldn’t… would they?