by Hope Madden
You’re exhausted – just bone-deep tired – and for the umpteenth night in a row your son refuses to sleep. He’s terrified, inconsolable. You check under the bed, you check in the closet, you read a book together – no luck. You let him choose the next book to read, and he hands you a pop-up you don’t recognize: The Babadook. Pretty soon, your son isn’t the only one afraid of what’s in the shadows.
It’s a simple premise, and writer/director Jennifer Kent spins her tale with straightforward efficiency. There is no need for cheap theatrics, camera tricks or convoluted backstories, because Kent is drilling down into something deeply, frighteningly human.
Like a fairy tale or nursery rhyme, simplicity and a child’s logic can be all you need for terror.
Kent’s film is expertly written and beautifully acted, boasting unnerving performances from not only a stellar lead in Essie Davis, but also the alarmingly spot-on young Noah Wiseman. Davis’s lovely, loving Amelia is so recognizably wearied by her only child’s erratic, sometimes violent behavior that you cannot help but pity her, and sometimes fear for her, and other times fear her.
Likewise, Wiseman delivers as a tender, confused, dear little boy you sometimes just want to throttle. Their naturalistic performances genuinely showcase the baggage that can exist between a parent and a child.
Radek Ladczuk’s vivid cinematography gives scenes a properly macabre sense, the exaggerated colors, sizes, angles and shadows evoking the living terror of a child’s imagination.
Much of what catapults The Babadook beyond similar “presence in my house” flicks is the allegorical nature of the story. There’s an almost subversive relevance to the familial tensions because of their naked honesty, and the fight with the shadowy monster as well as the film’s unusual resolution heighten tensions.
The film’s subtext sits so close to the surface that it threatens to burst through. Though that does at times weaken the fantasy, it gives the film a terrifying urgency. In the subtext there is a primal horror, a taboo rarely visited in film and certainly never examined with such sympathy. Indeed, the compassion in the film may be the element that makes it so very unsettling.
Eerily familiar yet peculiar and unique, The Babadook immediately ranks among the freshest and more memorable films the genre has to offer. It also marks a filmmaker to keep an eye on.