If you live under a rock and haven’t heard, THE BABADOOK (Australia, 2014) is supposed to be the greatest horror in the past ten years. Even THE EXORCIST’s William Friedkin said it’s “the most frightening movie I’ve ever seen.” Coming from the director of what many consider to be the scariest movie of all time, that’s saying something. Still, I was skeptical; though my intrigue was peaked just enough to order first time feature director Jennifer Kent’s film.
If you didn’t know, a successful crowdfunding campaign earned Kent a little over $34,000, which apparently went to the art department. Beforehand, the Australian acted in several projects, and directed two shorts and a television episode. I have not seen her previous work, but after watching THE BABADOOK, I know there are many features in her future.
THE BABADOOK stars Essie Davis (Amelia) as a struggling single mother with a rambunctious and creepy son, played by Noah Wiseman (Samuel). Davis is absolutely phenomenal, whether she’s sheepish, scared, or on the psycho-mom warpath. Wiseman is equally fantastic as he goes from a socially inept persona to a kid on a mission. In fact, regardless of the role, every actor delivered. It’s clear they all had the required skills, but Kent definitely got them to bring their collective best to every take.
To close out the trinity, cinematographer Radek Ladczuk brings a remarkable balance of light and dark, along with some interesting camera angles, to create a foreboding atmosphere that never wanes. Thanks to this big three of directing, acting, and photography, each scene is loaded with top-flight layers to keep us focused on the screen, and ready to march forward with each character and whatever situation awaits them.
Most of the action takes place in Amelia’s home as she and her son face the uncanny in the guise of Babadook. Sure, the name sounds silly, but it’s an anagram for “a bad book”, and Babadook does not play. The most interesting element of the narrative is how the whacked out child and semi-stable mom change mental roles as the film progresses. Mom may not be able to handle the uncanny, but Samuel steps up as if he’s waited his whole young life to prove himself – and this is his coming of age moment.
As we all know, movies work or don’t work depending upon what we bring to the film. Sure, many scoff or outright dismiss THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY for several reasons, but both movies worked for me (especially PA) because they both played on my childhood fears and nightmares. THE BABADOOK may work on those who have young children. When they fear for Samuel, they actually fear what might happen to their child. And as parents, they probably fear holding onto themselves in the face of “the other”, much as Amelia does. If so, one can understand all the over-hype and five star ratings. Yes, I felt a couple of little jolts, but nothing substantial, and I never really feared for the characters or my own sanity. After all, at this level, what would really happen to a child in a major independent film?
Although I have a couple of questions regarding the end of the tale, and although fear didn’t sweep me away, the overall execution is enough to warrant 3.5 if not 4 stars. I lean towards the latter because of Kent, Davis, Wiseman, Ladczuk, and even Jed Kurzel’s music, which tied in seamlessly with the story. Overall, THE BABADOOK is a great dramatic horror, but nothing to keep you awake at night.
4 out of 5 stars
(Photo from IGN.)