It’s been a while since we’ve seen a great new movie monster, but Australian horror film The Babadook has done the trick with its titular demon. First released on the festival scene to critical acclaim earlier this year, The Babadook has finally made it to a UK general release. It’s an effective, creepy, ambitious chiller which signals good things for debut director Jennifer Kent, even if in the end it doesn’t quite escape the limits of the genre.
Essie Davis plays Amelia, a widow struggling to cope with the increasingly troubling antics of young son Samuel (an effectively creepy Noah Wiseman), who sees monsters everywhere and has an unpleasant habit of building home-made weaponry in the basement. Samuel, for his part, is struggling to live up to the shadow of his father, who died in a car crash driving Amelia to the hospital the night she went into labour. It is in the midst of this febrile atmosphere that a strange picture book mysteriously appears in the house, telling the tale of a nocturnal demon who stalks children, and is plucked off the shelf by Samuel for his unwitting mother to read. Naturally, it’s not long before things are going bump in the night.
Kent gives The Babadook an impressive visual style. Even the daylight scenes are leached of colour, all greys, blacks and pale whites. At night Amelia’s house becomes a sinister shadow ground, with every corner potentially hiding some lurking evil. It’s a sense of style that extends to the sound design as well – even the quieter scenes are punctuated with creaks, rumbles, and a low, sinister droning. Best of all is the monster itself, a sinister top-hatted shadow which Kent is clever enough to never quite let us see directly. It’s a genuinely creepy creature, a bogeyman straight out of a Grimm fairytale, and the movie is at its most frightening whenever night falls and the Babadook emerges to terrorise the house’s inhabitants.
Where The Babadook is most effective, however, is when it explores the relationship between Samuel and Amelia, who, for all that she cares for her son, also nurses a hidden resentment towards him. His anxiety and increasingly bizarre actions threaten her sleep, work and social life, and even his birthday is too painful to celebrate on the correct day, given its association with her husband’s death. It’s a brave move to focus so heavily on Amelia’s ambiguity towards her child, but also a convincing one. Most intriguing is the way the film toys with the idea that the Babadook may be little more than a reflection of Amelia’s own declining mental state, and the suggestion that deep down this mother may actually mean to harm her child.
Elsewhere The Babadook seems happier to play by genre rules. For all that Samuel is an interesting character, he’s still yet another creepy horror movie kid. The large, delapidated house is also as well worn a horror location as the cabin in the woods, and as for the family pet, it might as well be wearing a collar which simply says ‘I am doomed.’ More damagingly, while The Babadook may be consistently unsettling, it’s only intermittently scary, lacking the genuine terror factor of otherwise lesser recent releases such as The Conjuring, and despite a generally strong final act it tails off in its closing scenes.
As a metaphor for emotional repression and deep-seated grief, The Babadook is undeniably effective, but nonetheless the praise with which it’s been showered may say less about this film than it does about a genre where even the slightest ambition has become depressingly rare. Still, The Babadook is an impressively resouceful debut from Kent; unsettling, often chilling and really quite sad. It’ll be interesting to see where she goes from here.