Writer/director Jennifer Kent makes an impressive debut with this assured psychological horror about a widow struggling with her difficult son.
Amelia (Essie Davis) works as a nurse at a nursing home, but her exhaustion is beginning to show. Her husband died in a car crash leaving her to raise their son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) alone. And he is truly a problem child. He has no social filters, informing total strangers that his father died while driving Amelia to the hospital to have him, sets traps all around the house to catch imaginary monsters, which he’s still scared of despite being nearly 7, and brings lethal crossbows to school without a second thought, resulting in major disciplinary action. When she reads him children’s book The Babadook she is aghast at its sinister content. Giving Robbie sedatives for his new nightmares and terror-related seizures she also takes medication, and so begins a slow dance of mental disintegration – can The Babadook be real?
Australia has never looked so awful, and that’s a huge compliment. Kent and cinematographer Radek Ladczuk cast a washed out blue-gray look over proceedings that combine with the creakiest house in existence to make South Australia look like darkest Gothic Yorkshire. Davis starred in the TV adaptation of The Slap, another Australian exploration of children who are every prospective parent’s worst nightmare. Indeed Amelia’s sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney) bluntly explains why she never visits: “I can’t stand to be around your son, and you know what, neither can you.” Wiseman’s habit of grimacing in a way that looks like grinning, and panting in distress, is sensationally disturbing; after gravely injuring a girl everyone sees it as a malevolent grin. Davis is on top form. Her longing for husband Oskar (Benjamin Winspear), her frustration, exhaustion, despair, rage – all are viscerally conveyed.
The Babadook is a wonderful exercise in ambiguity and dread, a psychological horror of the highest calibre with a meaty dramatic through-line. Kent stages a number of jump-scares, inserts the obligatory demonisation of sexual desire as catalyst for Dionysian horror, and blurs the line gloriously between whose perception we’re experiencing when Amelia goes Mommie Dearest. Amelia starts to medicate herself and Samuel for their nervous exhaustion, and this allows magnificent ambiguity; are they hallucinating or is The Babadook real? When she tries to report that someone is stalking her to a police officer, and acts erratic in front of concerned neighbour Mrs Roach (Barbara West), you have the feeling this will be damning evidence that she’d gone off her rocker, after she guts Samuel; the explicit wish of The Babadook. And you further fear that this horror might go there…
The Babadook runs out of places to go once it admits the supernatural at a very late stage, but its combination of taboo drama and spine-tingling dread and ambiguity mark it as sophisticated horror.