Ba ba ba ba Babadook
The Babadook, domestic horror, not rated, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3.5 chiles Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother who lives in a creaky old house with her young son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), a precocious boy with an overactive imagination and a fondness for magic tricks. She is stressed from her job as a caregiver at a home for the elderly, where her supervisor is a mean old witch, and is still grieving for her husband, who died in an accident while driving her to the hospital to give birth to Samuel. Now she must deal with Sam’s behavior problems, which have strained her relations with her family members — with her sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney), for instance. Sam is lonely, cruelly taunted by his cousin, and misunderstood by adults. He’s unwelcome at his Aunt Claire’s, and Claire, in turn, refuses to visit Amelia’s. In fact, Claire seems to be punishing Amelia for Sam’s out-of-control conduct.
Sam is at that age when he wants to be more independent, yet he remains tied to his mother. He loves her fiercely: She is, for better or worse, his entire world. Amelia seldom mentions her husband, and he amounts to little more than a spectral abstraction for Sam. He likes to go down to the basement, against Amelia’s orders, to feel his father’s presence among his old things.
Despite his desire to mature, Sam has not yet outgrown bedtime stories and still believes, perhaps presciently, in monsters hiding under the bed and in the closet. Even a children’s book can terrify a fantasyprone kid like Sam. He makes dangerous homemade weapons, which he says are for protecting his mother from the monsters. Instead, they get him in trouble at school, and Amelia receives a reprimand from the principal. Amelia insists to her son that the monsters aren’t real — though there seems to be evidence to the contrary. This expertly crafted and visually impressive gem, the first feature- length film by Australian director Jennifer Kent, draws mother and son into a tighter and tighter knot of almost unbearable tension and imparts a sense of empathy for both that is rare in the horror genre. It’s never clear if the terror that seizes them is purely a distortion in their minds, or something far more sinister, but the film strongly suggests that the one can make the other manifest.
Though even the opening scenes carry a menacing air, it’s when a pop-up book called Mister Babadook inexplicably shows up in Sam’s stack of children’s stories that things amp up. Clearly, the book is designed to scare the wits out of children by exploiting their fear of things that go bump in the night: “A rumbling sound, then three sharp knocks: ba-BA-ba Dook! Dook! Dook!”
Davis is i mpressive in t he physically and emotionally demanding role of Amelia, a mother slowly succumbing to the evil insinuating itself into every aspect of her life. An ominous foreboding pervades the film. Like Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) in Carnival of Souls, Amelia is in a waking nightmare. Sam, on the other hand, is bold, brave, and true, moved by a love so absolute that he would clearly risk anything to save his mother. With only one other film under his belt ( The Gift, 2013), Wiseman manages to make his traumatized and damaged character highly sympathetic and believable.
Meanwhile, the scary book has a way of turning up again and again, despite Amelia’s attempts to be free of it. And her already-shot nerves aren’t helped any by Sam’s assertion that, once you let it in, “you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” The film gives us at least 30 minutes of unrelenting terror that elevates it to near-greatness. The Babadook delivers a strong visual style and sharp editing in its treatment of the themes of night terrors, child abuse and neglect, grief, loss, and resentment. It scores points for not relying on the excessive gore, misogynistic violence, and jump scares that plague the genre. Most of the frightening images come from Alex Juhasz’s creepy, hand-drawn illustrations. And there are some very effective sequences of vintage horror that are shown on the late-night TV shows Amelia watches — a reflection of her increasingly tormented state of mind. There is much originality and not much gratuitousness in this. But the film does indulge in the full horror treatment by turning the inviolable relationship of parent and child on its head, a trope that offers shades of The Shining and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. This may not be the greatest horror film of the 21st century ( The Descent, anyone?), but it is among the best of the past few years — in spite of a disappointing denouement that’s pretty much by the numbers.
— Michael Abatemarco
Innocence lost: Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman