By Simon Miraudo
May 12, 2014
You may not believe in bogeymen, but you better believe The Babadook is the best Australian film in years. Jennifer Kent’s feature debut is wholly inventive and original, while still calling to mind Drag Me To Hell, The Entity, Repulsion, The Shining, and Carrie. I don’t list its (possible) influences to make it seem derivative. I do it to place the flick in the pantheon alongside them. Often funny, frequently terrifying, haunting, moving, and anchored by a masterful Essie Davis, The Babadook is the real deal.
Davis stars as Amelia, a grieving widow struggling to raise monstrous, weapon-inventing Samuel (aggressive and adorable newcomer Noah Wiseman) on her lonesome. When they discover an enigmatic picture book about a ghastly, ghostly figure called The Babadook in their old Adelaide home, the mother-son duo suddenly find themselves harassed by mysterious forces. Are those creaks in the night and visions of a long-clawed figure in a trench coat actually a supernatural spectre, or simply signs of Amelia’s creeping, depressive madness? Kent, expanding her 2005 short Monster, keeps the answer beautifully ambiguous.
The picture is deliriously sinister; you need only check out the elaborate, bloody detail in that oddball book Amelia finds for evidence of the glee Kent takes in classic horror tropes. Davis keeps the more baroque elements of The Babadook grounded with her expertly calibrated performance; her heightened, maybe-possessed moments seeming only slightly removed from the genuine emotions of a harangued, grief-sick woman. Wiseman – an honest-to-goodness terror in the film’s first half, probably unwelcome in more homes than any otherworldly demon – similarly pulls off an incredible balancing act, frustrating Amelia to the point of near-insanity and still being endearing and sympathetic enough to remind us that, yes, he’s just a lonely kid.
On a minuscule budget, Kent and her technical team make the titular beastie feel totally omnipresent, and, when finally (kinda) revealed, entirely, satisfyingly chilling. Whether or not it’ll join the ranks of cinema’s most infamous monsters is hard to say. Though there’s always the chance The Babadook winds up in our collective pop-cultural memory, pulled out of the attic and dusted off every Halloween, it could also get lost in the deluge of local, otherwise-unimpressive horror efforts. (The same fate befell the last truly superlative Aussie fright-fest, Lake Mungo.) That would be a shame. The Babadook is not just a scary movie; it’s a great movie, and those – regardless of genre – deserve to find many, many fans.
The Babadook arrives in Australian cinemas May 22, 2014.