At some point in tonight’s screening, I realised I’d been gripping my knees with a not-insignificant amount of force for some time. At the Q&A session afterwards, star Essie Davis commented on what a quiet audience we were, seemingly a bit disappointed that we weren’t laughing and screaming through the movie; it’s not that the movie isn’t funny or scary – it’s both – but if the rest of the audience was like myself, we were glued to our seats with white knuckles.
The Babadook tells the story of Amelia (Davis), a grief-stricken and exhausted woman struggling to get through the days, not least of all due to the difficult task of raising her troubled 6-year-old son Samuel on her own. When Samuel picks out a bedtime story called “Mister Babadook” one night, Amelia is confronted by its dark and menacing story, as well as its macabre pop-up art. When it starts to seem more than reasonable that reading the story has conjured up The Babadook in real-life, things start to get a whole lot worse.
That’s as much as I’ll say of the plot. This is a film that will be best viewed not knowing more than a basic premise, because it is a deeply unsettling film. It’s also an oppressively tense film that suffocates you with its own claustrophobic nasties – in the best possible way. I can’t recall a single jump-scare used to jolt the audience; instead, like the villainous Mister Babadook himself, it gets under your skin and terrifies you until you realise you’re gripping your knees without knowing it.
Essie Davis is fantastic as Amelia, perfectly capturing the battle that it is to get up every day when you’re as exhausted as she is (and though her milieu is one of grief, anyone who has suffered even the slightest bout of insomnia will relate in spades). Amelia is a loving mother but definitely a flawed character, and you will want her to get a good night’s rest as much as she does. And I can’t discuss the full range of her performance without spoiling some of the film, but to say this is a brave, impressive and powerful performance is an understatement.
Also outstanding is Noah Wiseman as Samuel, creating a genuinely realistic performance that doesn’t rely on precociousness or cutesiness to convey a 6-year-old and the whirlwind of emotions they inspire in people (love, warmth, frustration, embarrassment and many more). It would have been easy for the Samuel character to have been a prop in the face of nastiness, and Wiseman makes him a flesh-and-blood boy that should never be put in as dark a situation as he is.
Writer/Director Jennifer Kent has crafted a masterpiece of nightmare fuel with this film. Utilising an impeccable score of twisted-fairytale motifs, a bleak colour scheme that doesn’t make itself too obvious, clever (and most of all, effective) camera trickery to convey Amelia’s state of mind, and an utterly masterful use of light and shadow to remove any sense of safety in a home, The Babadook is one of the most stylish horror films in recent memory, and done on a shoestring budget. The sound design alone is enough to get the hairs crawling on the back of your neck, before they just wither in fright, and the nightmare-sequences themselves are an absolute sight to behold.
It is also one of the most thoughtful horror films in recent memory. Not in the “considerate” sense of the word, but so much care and planning has clearly gone into this film, as well as its careful consideration of how to employ some upsetting themes (that I would discuss more if it wouldn’t spoil the effect of the film) in such a way to both ramp up the horror and tie it back to a painful reality in the world, that it’s a genuinely stimulating film, and not just from the incredibly frightening atmosphere it wields so well. This may sound like critical-wank, but I really don’t want to ruin the effect of the movie for anyone who will see it without any prior knowledge.
This is an impeccable movie. That it comes from Australia and premiered here not more than a kilometre from my home delights me. It’s the sort of film that you want to share with people as proof of what our industry is capable of crafting. This is a movie that deserves not only your attention, but your ticket fare. As was discussed in depth in the Q&A post-screening, this was a labour of love for many, and given the limited funds available for its creation, the end result is nothing short of astounding, so find out where it’s screening (for any locals, it’s playing at The State now, with a limited national release following from May 22), gather some friends, and go and see it. But you might want to stop and get a nightlight after you do.