Release Date: 16 February
2014 | 15 | Blu- ray/ DVD Director: Jennifer Kent Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West, Ben Winspear
It may be
named after a weird supernatural entity – a strange, shadowy creature from a pop- up book – but Aussie writer/ director Jennifer Kent’s feature debut has more to do with the little monsters you’ll find in the nearest nursery, and the monstrous feelings they inspire. Commendably, it tackles some truths rarely addressed in the horror genre, where if maternal drives are touched on at all, it’s usually simply as the fuel which powers a duel to the death. The reality is altogether more messy and complicated than that, of course. Yes, the bond between mother and child is powerful. But often affection and resentment sit side by side. Sometimes it’s not easy to love.
Amelia embodies that. Seven years after her husband died in a car crash driving her to the hospital to give birth, she’s still conflicted about her son, Samuel. You probably will be too. He can be sweet and funny, and with his love of magic tricks he’s quite a performer. But he’s also infuriatingly attention- seeking, prone to fits of screaming and violent outbursts. So when he starts talking to thin air and broken glass turns up in food it’s easy to put it down to his behavioural problems. Because the Babadook couldn’t possibly be real, could it?
The saucer- eyed Noah Wiseman gives a terrific performance as Sam, but is eclipsed by Essie Davis, excellent in the challenging role of his mother. As, like a Roman Polanski heroine, Essie slowly descends into mania, she has to project both vulnerability and ferociousness. As Davis astutely observes, it’s like playing two roles from The Shining simultaneously: “A little bit of Shelley Duvall, a little bit of Jack Nicholson.” She pulls it off with aplomb, summoning up a tornado of rage. For all its uncanny tricks – skittering across the ceiling like an insect, for example – the Babadook isn’t the scariest thing here. She is. With its storybook silhouette stylings, part of a lineage stretching back through Freddy Krueger to the Struwwelpeter, the Babadook taps into some primal fears, but here’s a concept far more potent: a mother with murderous impulses towards her own child; not because she’s a psychopath, but because, pushed too far, she’s fraying at the edges. In one startling outburst, Amelia roars at Sam, “Sometimes I wanna smash your head against a brick wall!” It’s a thought that’s crossed the minds of millions of perfectly decent parents, in moments of exhausted desperation.
If The Babadook has a weakness, it’s that the decision to make the film’s world feel slightly abstract is something of a double- edged sword. There are few signs of the 21st century in Essie’s house, which with its vintage set dressing and lack of modern tech could exist in the ’ 50s or ’ 70s – or in the pages of a storybook. This lends the story a feeling of timeless universality, but also undermines the sense that you might know these people; that they might live next door. Similarly, though the conclusion works in metaphorical terms, taken at face value it seems a little anti- climactic. And when it comes to the “scary stuff ”, Kent uses the same devices – shorting lights, the door that swings open with a sinister creak – employed by countless directors before her.
None of this matters too much, though, because the film is so successful in the way it confronts a taboo that doesn’t often figure in this genre; though it really shouldn’t, that feels strikingly fresh. This obviously makes The Babadook a film particularly likely to appeal to a female audience, who all too often find their gender represented by college girls being chased through
Parenting manuals always stress the importance of family mealtimes. Perhaps not this one.