It’s good to be able to recommend a new horror film, what with all the sadistic trash that is called by that name nowadays. From Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent comes The Babadook, intelligent horror with a point.
Essie Davis plays Amelia, whom we first meet dreaming about a car crash. She’s a single mom with a 7-year-old son named Samuel, played by Noah Wiseman. Samuel wakes her up to tell her that the monster is in his room again, and they go through a routine together, looking under the bed, in the closet, and so on, with Samuel ending up sleeping in Mom’s bed. A little later we find out what the dream was about: Amelia’s husband was killed in a car accident taking her to the hospital to give birth to Samuel. This event, which Amelia doesn’t like to talk about, hangs over the film like a shroud and provides a key to understanding its mysteries.
One night when Amelia says that Samuel can choose a book for her to read to him, he pulls one from the shelf called “Mr. Babadook.” Well, it is a picture book, and Amelia starts to read it to him, but soon it becomes clear that this is not good for kids—it’s a downright creepy tale about a monster that invades your home and never leaves. Samuel becomes obsessed with this Babadook monster, and his behavior at home, at school, with other kids, becomes more and more uncontrollable. Here I must mention my admiration for the young actor Wiseman, who really manages to get on your nerves, as he is meant to. Amelia takes him out of school when he shoots an arrow at another kid, and then he acts out at his cousin’s birthday party, pushing her out of a treehouse. Through all this, the Mom tries to stay patient, loving, and supportive, but she’s under tremendous strain. And then, the Babadook shows up.
Jennifer Kent, the director, demonstrates a subtle method of creeping us out, with deft combinations of mood, music, and special effects that reflect a sense of inner fear rather than just something outside of us that’s scary. In fact the audience is forced to question whether the child is crazy, or maybe the mother, and here in this regard the performance of Essie Davis is outstanding. The gentle, somewhat passive person we meet in the beginning of the movie goes through a lot of changes, some of them absolutely terrifying, and Davis’s ability to transform herself really makes the film work.
The most interesting thing about The Babadook, though, is how fear, the stock and trade of every horror movie ever made, is ultimately a symbol of other things. Allegory isn’t used very often in movies. Producers think it confuses people. But that doesn’t worry Jennifer Kent, and it’s a good thing, because as I said at the beginning, unlike most scary movies, this one has a real point.