It’s ev­ery­where and nowhere

Jen­nifer Kent’s truly orig­i­nal shocker is the best hor­ror film to make it into com­mer­cial cin­e­mas this year, writes

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - THE TICKET REVIEWS -

THE­BABADOOK Di­rected by Jen­nifer Kent. Star­ring Essie Davis, Noah Wise­man, Hay­ley McEl­hin­ney, Daniel Hen­shall, Bar­bara West, Ben Win­spear. 15A cert, gen re­lease, 94 min Many of the best hor­ror films play upon fears and pho­bias we don’t like to ad­mit to our­selves: as­so­ci­a­tions be­tween sex and death; sup­pressed prej­u­dice; the loom­ing threat of mad­ness.

Here’s a case in point. Jen­nifer Kent’s ex­cel­lent Aus­tralian film wades its way through pae­do­pho­bic ter­ri­tory sim­i­lar to that cov­ered by David Lynch’s Eraser­head and Jaume Col­let-Serra’s un­der­val­ued Or­phan. There are all kinds of an­cient ter­rors here, but the most un­set­tling con­cern a mother’s di­vided feel­ings for a dif­fi­cult child. Her des­per­ate, painful, pro­tec­tive love is con­stantly be­ing chal­lenged by ir­ri­ta­tion at her son’s abra­sive need­i­ness. The su­per­nat­u­ral un­der­cur­rents are spooky, but the in­ti­ma­tions of real-life trau­mas are still more disturbing.

The movie kicks off some seven years after Amelia (Essie Davis) lost her hus­band in a car crash. She was preg­nant at the time and Oskar (Ben Win­spear), her son, has grown into an in­tel­li­gent, but tem­per­a­men­tally er­ratic young boy. Stressed by var­i­ous fears, he has alien­ated var­i­ous con­tem­po­raries and frus­trated the teach­ers. The film lurches to­wards the su­per­nat­u­ral (or does it?) when Oskar dis­cov­ers a pop-up book en­ti­tled Mis­ter Babadook in his room. Con­cern­ing a sooty creature with spiked fin­gers and a tow­er­ing hat, the vol­ume pretty much pre­dicts what hor­rors are to come in last third of the pic­ture. Un­sur­pris­ingly, the al­ready nervy kid be­comes com­pletely freaked out and imag­ines the creature un­der ev­ery bed and within ev­ery wardrobe. His be­hav­iour wors­ens. But the book will not al­low it­self to be thrown away.

Soon, ob­ses­sion with the creature spreads to mom. She sus­pects that some­thing is try­ing to break into the house, but, when she goes to the po­lice sta­tion to com­plain, signs of the Babadook are there too. Amelia be­gins to fear that she may be driven to vi­o­lence.

Wise­man is very strong as the dis­turbed child – voice like truck brakes in need of lu­bri­ca­tion – but the film be­longs to Essie Davis. Kent has coached a per­for­mance that, though hys­ter­i­cal in its later stages, al­ways seems grounded in real fears and be­liev­able com­pli­ca­tions. At first, in­ves­ti­ga­tions by so­cial ser­vices con­cern her more than the at­ten­tions of a mys­te­ri­ous imp.

The Babadook does even­tu­ally man­i­fest it­self, but it never loses its power as a metaphor for less fan­tas­tic men­aces. Mind you, it is cer­tainly an odd look­ing thing. There is some­thing of those Czech an­i­ma­tions from the post-war pe­riod that, though in­tended as anti-to­tal­i­tar­ian al­le­gories, ended up terrifying chil­dren in the run up to the evening news. There’s a queasi­ness, an un­healthy feel­ing, a dol­lop of the un­heim­lich to its fetid aura.

The most wor­ry­ing sec­tions of The Babadook fo­cus on mother and child alone in an un­der­fur­nished, grey fam­ily house. Kent shot the film in Ade­laide and for non-Aus­tralian view­ers, the odd com­bi­na­tion of sub­ur­ban con­for­mity and An­tipodean oth­er­ness adds to the creepi­ness. As in Ro­man Polan­ski’s Re­pul­sion, or­di­nary house­hold ob­jects gain ma­lig­nity as the iso­la­tion and claus­tro­pho­bia sets to work on mother and son. The Babadook ap­pears on tele­vi­sion in the back­ground of a Ge­orges Méliès film and, with his stilted mono­chrome moves, re­minds us of Nos­fer­atu, The Golem and em­a­na­tions from The Cab­i­net of Dr Caligari. (The pres­ence of an early silent movie on broad­cast TV is ev­ery bit as strange as any su­per­nat­u­ral visi­ta­tion.)

Eas­ily the best hor­ror film to make it into com­mer­cial cin­e­mas this year, Kent’s piece is both ag­gres­sively orig­i­nal and im­pres­sively con­nected to tra­di­tion. It talks to gen­uine prob­lems, but it hap­pens in a uni­verse as pe­cu­liar as the one that con­tained Hansel and Gre­tel. When is this tak­ing place?

The tech­nol­ogy lags and the fash­ions seem un­teth­ered. It’s ev­ery­where and nowhere. It now and never. All of which will help make The Babadook a hor­ror movie for the ages.

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