Stars: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West, Tiffany Lyndall-Knight and Ben Winspear.
Writer/Director: Jennifer Kent.
The fractured, fragile mental states of a struggling widow and her clingy 6 year-old son manifest as a startling poltergeist-like possession in the nerve(and tongue)-twisting horror thriller, The Babadook.
Representing a stunning debut for writer/director Jennifer Kent, this truly chilling vision is steeped in the nightmarish lore of fairy-tale storytelling while at the same time reconstructing familiar haunted-house tropes within a modern suburban setting. Exhibiting the same love of and fresh vision for the genre as fellow Australian James Wan did recently with The Conjuring, Kent pushes beyond the trappings usually associated with its kind and plunges thematically into the corrosiveness of grief, guilt and loneliness as they exist within the already difficult role of single parent.
Central to the film’s profound impact is Essie Davis as Amelia, the actress taking her character and the audience to the abyss of fragile despair before being reborn with a supernatural ferocity. The on-screen chemistry she shares with Noah Wiseman, the child actor playing her trouble son Samuel, is utterly convincing; when the horrors take shape and the shadowy pall of physical violence hangs heavily over their shared suburban terrace, the acting from the pair captures the threat with a razor-edge intensity.
Where Kent excels is in her handling of Amelia’s descent into mental instability. With her terrific editor Simon Njoo, she adopts the technique of clipping early scenes by a just a few frames, resulting in a disconcerting narrative trajectory that effectively leaves her main character behind at times. As Amelia is loosing grip on her mind, so is the character struggling to keep up with her own story (it helps that the naturally beautiful Davis foregoes all vanity in the role, often appearing to be barely holding it together physically and emotionally). The film works as great horror fiction thanks entirely to the believability afforded the protagonist’s psychological state.
Equally impressive is the titular spook, brought to life from the pages of an ominous bedtime book and given resonance by a child’s imagination before dining off the inky, colourless misery of the home environment. Kent knows exactly the power of the ace she has up her sleeve; she confidently inches forward for almost the entire film before a final reveal that delivers a visceral jolt of terror.
Despite a relatively meagre budget (reportedly little more than Aus$2million), The Babadook is an expertly crafted film, with all tech contributions (notably Alex Holmes’ production design and Radoslaw Ladczuk’s cinematography) of the highest standard. The darkened home is often cast in shades of grey, echoing the black-and-white origins of Kent’s vision; The Babadook is a feature-length adaptation of Kent’s 2005 short, Monster, an equally effective frightener with the terrific Susan Prior screaming up a storm in the role of ‘Mother’.