Review: The Babadook (2014)

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Director: Jennifer Kent
Screenwriter: Jennifer Kent
Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Tim Purcell, Daniel Henshall, Barbara West, Benjamin Winspear & Hayley McElhinney
Runtime: 93 min // Certificate: 15

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVxOrUjX-bc]

A single mother, Amelia (Davis; Australia), lives in a large, uninviting house with her six-year-old son Samuel (Wiseman). Oskar (Winspear) her husband – and Samuel’s Dad – died on the night Samuel was born while driving Amelia to the hospital, and neither she nor her son have ever been able to come to terms with this. They’re haunted, not by ghosts or monsters or a man with a knife, but by their own culpability in Oskar’s death.

That is the cornerstone upon which Jennifer Kent’s old-school horror film, The Babadook, is built. Part ghost-story, part-possession story and part-potential slasher, the film stands tall in a year defined by the usual incessant slurry of supernatural tripe that has defined mainstream horror for most of this decade. Here we have a tale reminiscent of a classic, ghoulish fairy-tale, that dispenses with the ghosts and creepy dolls of horror lore, puts down the cattle-prod, turns down the volume and focuses not on monsters but on characters.

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In the vein of true, classic horror, The Babadook is an atmospheric, creepy and thematically-aware. The Babadook, the mysterious creature at the heart of the film, isn’t just a monster but a manifestation of palpable, relatable fears and emotions. This is the story of a woman who blames both herself and her son for the death of her husband, and it is her loss and her guilt that truly haunts her. After a somewhat sluggish opening, in which we get to see both Amelia and Samuel at their most fraught and tetchy, the film introduces the horrific notion that Amelia despises her son for what has happened, and she slowly but surely begins to become possessed by such an idea. From thereon in, The Babadook is absolutely horrifying.

What sets The Babadook apart from most of the mainstream horror films of 2014 is that it is wholly character driven. Kent puts a great deal of effort into making us like and care about Amelia and Samuel, and so when the horror really kicks in, we aren’t just scared for ourselves but worried about them. She toys with some pretty worrisome ideas, the most pertinent one being filicide, and by the time the final act rolls along, one can’t help but wonder if the she will really go as far as she threatens to. Kent understands what makes the audience ticks and, just like the Babadook itself, she creeps under your skin and makes you confront some pretty dark and distressing demons in much the same way as her characters.

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The Babadook doesn’t always work, but the combination of fantastic performances from the two leads and an exquisite directorial grasp from Kent makes for a film that really earns its horror credentials. Kent manipulates colour and location, utilising a sullen palette of light blues and greys to depress her audience and trick them into submission, while using the house – the centrepiece of much of the film’s action – to instil them with a dreary sense of claustrophobia. For just over 90 minutes Kent creeps us out, relying on genuine fears over pointless jump scares to really get under our skin and keep us focussed and invested on what is unfolding on the screen.

A competent and confident feature debut from Kent, The Babadook does fall into some avoidable pitfalls (most notably, its anticlimactic conclusion) but it works hard to replicate the old-school horror films that Kent clearly admires. She earns the right to leave some questions unanswered, and she does a fantastic job of exploring innate human fears and anxieties via a traditional ghost story. For that alone she should be commended, and I look forward to seeing what she can come up with next.

★★★

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