Director: Jennifer Kent
Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman
Watch The Babadook online in the UK: iTunes / TalkTalk TV / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play
As anybody who has tried to pretend that “there’s no such thing as a Gruffalo” will know, the best contemporary children’s stories are a conspiratorial, cheeky wink to the child whose imagination can summon up and cast aside monsters at will. In ye olden days, of course, fairytales were altogether more serious, a Grimm bloodbath of warnings against stranger danger and other real-world perils. The Babadook astutely unites the wry, modern storybook incarnation with the genre’s disturbing past.
It would have been so easy to make the titular Babadook a figure of devilish fun, a Freddy Krueger in pop-up form. But director Jennifer Kent isn’t interested in the shock and gore of the slasher. Instead, this is a more insidious affair of considerable thematic and emotional weight, delving into grief, parenting, child psychology and tricks of the mind.
Amelia (Davis) is a single mum in Australia, bringing up Samuel (Wiseman), the son she was in labour with when her husband died in a car crash. She’s never let go of that grief, and Samuel has developed considerable anxieties that are amplified when the titular story appears on the shelf, with its Julia Donaldson-style rhymes quickly moving into threats of death. As paranoia sets in, Amelia’s bunker mentality cocoons the family into their creaky, creepy house, but what good is that when “you can’t get rid of the Babadook”?
There’s a definite is it? / isn’t it? tension to its existence, with Amelia hinting at a past as a children’s author, and Samuel’s fears perhaps the result of horrors far more real than a supernatural monster. Kent takes her time building a sense of realism outside, all the more to accentuate the abandoned-doll’s-house feel of their home, and Davis’ astonishing performance is calibrated to that switch, moving from the jittery sleeplessness familiar to any parent to an altogether more disquieting, somnambulant rage. Davis won the Australian Academy award for Best Actress; she was unlucky not to be nominated for an Oscar.
There are scares, but fellow AACTA winner Kent’s investment in the everyday aspects brings a devastating sadness to proceedings. With a job at a care home – and an elderly, Parkinson’s-riddled lady next door – Amelia is so trapped by symbols of her loneliness and lost youth that even a potential love interest is virtually ignored. The film achieves a narrative claustrophobia; a tale of two damaged souls that is economical and evocative.
The same applies to Kent’s handling of genre elements. The sound design is extraordinary, a tapestry of knocks and buzzes and groaning floorboards that echoes with loneliness. The fleeting appearances of the Babadook – inspired by Alex Juhasz’s brilliantly surreal nice/nasty picture-book illustrations – have the unsettling, jerky movements of a nightmare, at once artificial but palpably there. At one point, Amelia is seen watching old George Mélies movies, and the in-camera effects have a sense of the uncanny reminiscent of early cinema outings such as The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari, instantly future-proofing the film in an era of awkward CGI.
Better still, Kent never descends into bombast, even in a visually and aurally bone-rattling showdown. If anything, here’s a film that steps back from the brink, sacrificing its bleakest implications for something warmer and more hopeful. That makes it falter as horror, but as a character study and an insightful depiction of real issues, it is successful.