Note. This review was originally published as part of our Sundance 2014 coverage.
So many horror movies, especially ones about poltergeists or possessions, try to tie in their central supernatural phenomena with some aspect of real life. These attempts at metaphor usually fall flat simply because the comparisons can be so ridiculous. Take 2012’s The Possession, in which a Jewish demon’s grip on a young girl was supposed to be symbolic of how a child can act out when their parents divorce. That kind of problem isn’t solved by having Matisyahu chant Hebrew, however. We like to talk up horror as being effective because of how it can evoke the true dangers in life, but placing our normal anxieties alongside ghosts doesn’t automatically generate catharsis.
What I love about The Babadook is that its allegory actually makes sense, not just in how the namesake spook wreaks havoc on a family but in how its problem is dealt with. Actually, I love a lot more about it, such as Essie Davis’s lead performance, and that it’s one of the few films I’ve seen to give me legitimate scares beyond a few jumps.
Davis plays Amelia, an Australian nursing home attendant who is reaching the end of her rope. Her six-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is a loving and imaginative but incredibly difficult child. Her husband died in a car crash on the night that Samuel was born, which makes Samuel’s upcoming birthday all the more difficult to stomach. One would think that him getting kicked out of school for his misbehavior would be the worst things can get, but then a ridiculously creepy children’s book called The Babadook shows up in the house, and from then on its title character terrorizes both Samuel and Amelia, who steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that anything is wrong.
The Babadook is the best genre creature creation since the big black wolf-dog aliens from Attack the Block. It has a simple but unnerving look (sort of like Danny Devito’s Penguin crossed with a not-so-cute Edward Scissorhands), and is portrayed mainly by an actor in lieu of special effects. That is, when it is glimpsed. It gets more screentime as an illustration in the aforementioned book than in the flesh. Mainly, the babadook manifests in ways that push Amelia to act remarkably similar to the way a single mother at the frayed end of her last nerve would behave.
Davis is a titan in this film. Every time it seems that she can’t look any more exhausted and frazzled, she pushes her performance further. Amelia is a truly sympathetic protagonist, and watching her distress isn’t just scary — it’s genuinely upsetting. The babadook is her mounting grief and frustration, the part of her that hates Samuel for what his existence has done to hers, in constant conflict with her love for the boy. She seems to be one step away from going Andrea Yates, and that’s the tension that underlies much of the latter half of the movie. For his part, Wiseman is sometimes overly precious, but he makes for a rare non-annoying horror movie kid presence.
This is writer/director Jennifer Kent’s first feature, and the ease with which she generates a thick atmosphere of dread (helped by cinematographer Radoslaw Ladczuk and editor Simon Njoo) is astonishing. The Babadook milks so much for a feeling of queasy unease, starting with a nightmarish opening scene and ramping up once the book comes into play. The only usual horror pitfall it stumbles over is a climax that drags on for too long, though unlike most other examples it recovers with an ending that’s pretty much perfect and sews up its theme in a poignant but unsettling way. The Babadook is the best surprise I’ve had at this year’s Sundance.