Jennifer Kent | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Australia & Canada / English | 15
Essie Davis is best known for playing the sassy title role in popular Australian Christie-esque TV series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (for now — she’s in Game of Thrones next year), but here goes completely against type as single mother Amelia, who has to battle not only the stress of her awkward child, but also a strange storybook that may contain some kind of monster… but that would be silly… wouldn’t it?
Perhaps it’s best to not say too much about what’s going on with all that, because the film does a fantastic job blurring the lines between reality and dreams, facts and imaginings, whether it’s all happening or is all in Amelia’s head. For the majority of the film you’ll wonder: is this real? Is she being pranked? By who? A stalker? Her kid? Is she going insane and imagining it all? Sure, it’s a horror movie, so you’re thinking it’s real, but that’s what twists are for — the scares may be real, doesn’t mean the monster is.
And the scares are very real indeed. Not simplistic jump scares, but a festering tension that occasionally bursts forth in moments of specific terror. That doesn’t work for… a certain kind of viewer (to put it politely), but, for me, it makes the film far more genuinely scary, and memorably so, than being made to jump out of my seat a couple of times. Some have also criticised The Babadook for not being 100% original. Well, what is after a century of moviemaking and millennia of storytelling? What it does do is rearrange the familiar in new and terrifying ways, and tap into seams of fear that are harder to access and consequently too rarely touched by horror films. In that regard, the film it most reminded me of was The Shining — a horror film for people who think about what they’re watching, rather than just waiting for something to be thrown at the screen to make them jump. The slow burn tension will bore those content with the latter, who I suspect don’t tend to think a great deal (for one thing, they’d spot most of the jumps coming if they did).
Underpinning this is an incredible performance by Essie Davis. If this were merely a drama about a single mother coping with grief, rather than a genre movie, I’m sure she’d’ve been being rewarded all over the place. Again, I guess this turns off the ‘gorehound’ cadre of horror fans, but it’s the combined strength of the writing (by director Jennifer Kent) and Davis’ performance that mean the entire film is interpretable as a drama about grief and mental illness, rather than about an attacking monster or demonic possession or whatever else it might seem is going on (trying to avoid spoiling it again there!) For more on that, see this interpretation, for instance (bearing in mind it’s obviously spoilersome).
Although it’s Davis’ film, Noah Wiseman gives an accomplished performance as her kid. Well, maybe he’s too young to call it “accomplished”, I don’t know, but it must’ve been a difficult role to play — it calls for him to be a sweet little boy one minute, and a nightmare demon-child (in the real-world rather than horror-movie sense!) the next. He starts off immensely irritating — you can see why no one in the film likes him! — but he does grow on you. The next best performance is, of course, by their very cute little dog. (Do not watch this movie just because of the dog. Seriously.)
There is little in The Babadook that will make you jump, and even less that will make your stomach turn in disgust, but that’s absolutely fine. What it will do is chill your blood, make your hair stand on end, make you worry about every little creak or thump you hear elsewhere in the house after dark, and make you want to sleep with the lights on. Not just the bedroom lights, all the lights. Because once you’ve seen it, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.
This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.