REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media
For time immemorial, parents have needed to quell their children’s fears about monsters lurking in the closet. The Australian film, “The Babadook,” from Jennifer Kent, is a Gothic fairy tale in a contemporary setting. It explores the possibility that such sinister creatures may actually exist. Do these dark entities always remain external or can they inhabit us?
In the opening scene of “The Babadook,” Amelia (Essie Davis) has gone into labor. Her husband, Oscar (Ben Winspear), is dutifully driving her to the hospital. Before the couple arrives there, they are involved in a car crash. Oscar is killed, but Amelia survives the collision and a healthy baby boy is delivered.
Fast forward to the future. Amelia remains traumatized by the loss of her beloved husband. Her maternal instincts are tinged with ambivalence. After all, her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), now on the cusp of his seventh birthday, was born on the same day that her husband was tragically killed.
The mop-topped Samuel is quite a challenge to Amelia. Virtually every night, he wakes up screaming that there is a monster in his bedroom. Amelia rarely has the benefit of an uninterrupted night of sleep. She is forced to assure her terrified son that there is no such thing as monster. But is she right?
Amelia engages in a ritual of reading a book to Samuel before he goes to sleep. One night, she allows Samuel to choose the book. He rushes to Amelia’s bedroom bookcase and returns with a tome, titled, “Mr. Babadook.” Amelia is taken aback-she has never seen the book before. How did it end up reposing in her bookcase? Why doesn’t the book bear the name of any author?
Elegantly bound in red and black, the book contains a series of ominous pop-up images, specially designed for the film by American illustrator, Alex Juhasz. These illustrations are complemented by an equally scary text. The tome describes a top-hatted boogeyman with two spiky feet.
Now, Samuel’s vague, gnawing fears take on a specific, corporealized form. He becomes convinced that the babadook, depicted in the book, will try to kill him and his mother. Samuel fashions an armamentarium of make-shift weapons. This includes an impressive, cross-bow like contraption.
Amelia works at an assisted living facility for the elderly. One day, she receives an emergency phone call from Samuel’s school. Samuel has brought his array of weaponry to school. It is the latest example of his disturbing behavior, manifested by Samuel at school.
Amelia is summoned to meet with his teacher and the principal. Samuel’s teacher notes that one of his classmates could have been accidentally blinded or worse. The principal advises Amelia that they are going to remove Samuel from his class and assign him to a monitor. Distressed that Samuel will be further ostracized from his peers, Amelia withdraws her son from the school.
Amelia’s sister, Claire (Hayley McElhinney), broaches her concerns about Samuel. She confesses that she and her daughter, Ruby (Chloe Hurn) are afraid of Samuel. Nevertheless, she reluctantly invites Samuel to Ruby’s birthday party. Once there, Samuel, always the outcast, withdraws to an elevated playhouse away from the other children. However, Ruby informs Samuel that it is her playhouse and demands that he leave it. When he refuses, Ruby cruelly taunts him, “Your dad died because he didn’t want to be with you!” Enraged, Samuel pushes his cousin, who tumbles out of the playhouse, breaking her nose in the process.
Strange incidents continue to follow. At dinner, Amelia finds a shard of glass in her home-made soup. Did Samuel malevolently place it there or was it the babadook?
Following an eerie telephone call, an agitated Amelia goes to the police station to report that she is being stalked by a boogeyman from a children’s book. When an understandably skeptical desk sergeant (Adam Morgan) asks to see the book, Amelia advises him that she has destroyed it. The look of incredulity that registers on the face of the beleaguered policeman offers a fleeting moment of levity.
William Friedkin, the director of “The Exorcist,” presumably knows a thing or two about what it takes to infuse visceral scares into a film. Friedkin’s own Oscar-winning film includes one of the most spine-tingling scenes in the history of film. In it, Linda Blair is possessed by demonic forces. She is levitated above the floor, her head does a 360-degree spin, and she emits a bilious, projectile vomitus. Using the husky voiced Mercedes McCambridge, as a vocal stand-in, Blair’s character delivers the classic line, “Your mother rots in hell.” In extolling “The Babadook,” Friedkin assured, “It will scare the hell out of you as it did me.” He gushed, “I’ve never seen a more terrifying film.” Friedkin may have been waxing a tad hyperbolic. However, there is no denying that “The Babadook” is a genuinely chilling film.
Kent graduated from Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art in 1991. One of her fellow students was Essie Davis, the star of “The Babadook.” Following graduation, Kent worked principally as a thespian. However, after two decades, she lost her zeal for acting. She sent a proposal to Danish filmmaker, Lars van Trier, and worked as an assistant on his spare 2003 film, “Dogville.” According to Kent, “It was the best film school I could ever have.”
Kent made the award-winning short, “Monster.” Courtesy of a Kickstarter campaign, Kent raised $30,071 from 259 supporters. She augmented this by obtaining approximately $2.3 million from various government grants. This enabled her to expand the prior short into her first feature film.
Kent allocates much of the budget into her set design and imaginative practical effects. These are nicely lensed by Polish cinematographer, Radek Ladczuk.
Kent demonstrates considerable ingenuity in using her meager funds to create a sense of foreboding. Note the programming on the family television, which is playing in the background. It consists of certain scary films on a continuous loop. Sharp-eyed cinephiles may notice the 1900 short, “The Magic Book,” by George Melies and the 1963 Franco-Italian feature, “Black Sabbath” directed by Mario Bava. One of the latter film’s three segments portends a dynamic in “The Babadook.”
Kent elicits a nuanced performance from Essie Davis. She captures the inner turmoil of a single parent raising a problem child. Despite his youth, Noah Wiseman has the poise of an old trooper. He effectively commands the sympathies of the viewer, even as his behavior becomes progressively more aberrant.
“The Babadook” offers welcome respite from recent films of the genre. We are spared another film based on the hackneyed trope of found footage and there is no evidence of C.G.I.
“The Babadook” is being mismarketed by IFC as a generic horror film. In actuality, despite its miniscule budget, “the Babadook” is actually one scary psychodrama.
“The Babadook” *** No MPAA rating 93 minutes
Film critic Nathan Lerner sees more than 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.