This was the big one for me. I’ve been hearing since Sundance about how scary and good this film is. Needless to say I was a little nervous, but with protective jacket to hide behind I was ready to face The Babadook.
Single mother Amelia (Essie Davis) is reaching her limit. Her beloved husband died seven years ago in a car crash driving her to the hospital to give birth to their son Sam (Noah Wiseman), and so the boy’s birthday has always been a sore spot for her. She’s also never really connected with her son, who is strange and spends his time building all kinds of weapons to battle the monsters he is obsessively convinced lay lurking around their house. When a strange and creepy book called Mister Babadook appears on the shelf, it seems that something is haunting mother and son, something that is waiting in the darkness to be let in.
This is the kind of horror movie that I love: a good story executed with atmosphere and style that has a tension that will make you pause before turning off the lights at night. The whole film has a kind of chill to it, from the ice-blue house that Amelia and her son live in, to the overcast skies outside the window (you’ve never seen Australia look so cold before), along with moments of true dream-like surrealism and meticulous sound design. During the night-time scenes your eyes are drawn to every shadow, both checking for danger and dreading to see something, and this is one of the fundamental things that the movie gets so right. The Babadook is a creature of shadows, lurking in corners, with a Nosferatu-esque shape that sends you back to when you woke up in the middle of the night and were convinced that the dressing gown hanging on the back of the door was some horrible creature, and it will keep you there. The design of the book itself is also simple yet really unnerving, all sketchy charcoal drawings. At one point I flinched in my seat and then realised that I was being scared by nothing more than a paper cutout.
Of course, a film like this can have all the style in the world, but without the performances to hold it together you’re just going to end up with a mess. Davis really knocks it out as the strained Amelia. In the first, act you really sympathise with her life, trying to hold everything together when her son Sam is honestly being a complete terror. But then as the haunting gets more intense, something shifts and as Amelia’s behaviour gets more erratic, the more Sam feels like a sweet, if strange, young child and we begin to connect more with him instead.
A large amount of the discomfort at this point comes less from a supernatural place and more from a more disturbing real one. I’m not always a fan of ambiguity in my horror films; I think that sometimes the interpretation of “it’s all in their head” is a lazy one, but here I’m just genuinely not sure. Does Amelia’s behaviour come from something sinister influencing her life, or is it just a combination of sleep deprivation, deep rooted mental problems and the overactive imagination of a child coming together? The final product is something that is refreshingly original and I think could make for some really interesting discussions. The ending itself does raise some questions, but it is by no means bad and does make me want to revisit the film again.
Scary and beautiful, The Babadook is one of those films I can simply describe as a must-see.
FrightFest ran from August 21-25 in London, England.