?Good horror movies are pretty difficult to come by these days. Movies that really get under your skin and make you lose a little sleep. The ones that make you turn on that light in the kitchen just so it’s not completely dark in the living room. The Conjuring was the last film that really shredded my nerves, but this little surprise Australian horror came out of nowhere to take away the crown. Director Jennifer Kent brings to life a story about grief and motherhood, full of metaphor, symbolism and some genuine emotion, which is something that makes the shock and horror even more terrifying.
The film revolves around Amelia (Essie Davis), a woman grieving the loss of her husband while trying to raise her troubled son Samuel. It starts off innocently enough, and sprinkles in some build up showing us how Samuel’s sporadic and strange behavior is starting to alienate Amelia and he from the outside world, as well as wear down her nerve. From here, we learn of Samuel’s belief and fear in a monster named The Babadook, that he has found inside a creepy children’s book. From here, the descent into madness and horror begins.
The central performance by Essie Davis is at the heart of things, and really drives the film. It is an incredible performance, and it’s not often you see an actor or actress carry a film so completely on their shoulders, turning what could end up being a standard horror film into something that is essentially a very, very scary psychological drama. Something so much more credible. She presents a nuanced and subdued, but clear level of grief which struck me as incredible easy to believe. As the film goes on of course, her grief manifests itself in a variety of stronger ways as her state of mind eases itself slowly into the realms of madness.
The plot is beautifully paced, a slow burn of dread and small but effective scares. These scares are an incredible mix of subtle, psychological fear and more visual shocks. Once the action gets going it really is pretty relentless. The real drama and the scares alternate effectively, keeping us in the realm of reality, as we see our characters descend away from it. Nothing ever seems cliche, and what’s interesting is, although The Babadook character looks somewhat cheesy on the surface, it is this that makes it more unique. The Babadook is something we’ve never seen before, and it’s scares don’t require us to actually see it a great deal. In fact, many of the films most effective shocks involve only the characters themselves, which is quite frankly an ingenious way to do business in a movie like this.
Visually, the film is stark and gloomy. The colors are dull and emphasize the tone and theme of the film wonderfully. Some of the shots are great, and when Mr. Babadook does make a rare appearance in the flesh, the trickery of the camera is effectively done. The direction of the film in this sense really is flawless. The camera just knows when to focus on facial expressions, and when to take a more distant approach. Lighting is done like a true expert of the genre, with dark corners and doorways all over the place. In the films more manic moments, the camera becomes much less smooth and more manic in it’s own right. It all works together brilliantly to create a seamless visual experience that ticks all the boxes in terms of genre technique, but also throws in a few unique twists.
Many times, films like this have a lot going on but then fall flat when they try and end effectively. It makes sense, as the nature of the horror genre can be that it is difficult to deliver an ending that matches the thrills throughout, and still seems viable or credible. With The Babadook however, I’d say that the filmmakers and the writers in particular have done a truly brilliant job concluding the movie. There is a big bang of thrills, followed by a great ending that really drives home the symbolism and metaphor in the film, giving us an opportunity to understand it to a point, but not completely giving us all the answers so that we can’t formulate our own interpretations. It was completely satisfying and one of the better endings to a horror film I’ve seen in a while.
Overall, The Babadook is quite simply one of the best horror films I’ve seen in the past decade. It really did disturb me, sadden me, and scare me on a lot of levels, both in terms of psychological horror and make you jump shocks. Both are done equally well, and with great intelligence and the horror is combined seamlessly with real life drama. Themes of loss, grief and parenthood are brought to life by the creepiest children’s book character ever, and the ending ties it up in a satisfying bow. If you fancy a real horror film, go watch The Babadook.