by Dan Fields
© 2014 eOne Films/IFC Films
Early this year, director Mike Flanagan brought audiences a horror story of surprising cleverness and punch. That film, Oculus, took a soul-sickening look at the decay of an American family at the hands of of a sinister entity with the power to prey on souls across generations. Now Australian director Jennifer Kent presents a fresh exercise in domestic terror. The Babadook is the more straightforward horror yarn, but thanks to skilled direction and performance it manages to be several times more personal and devastating.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a loving mother in a tough time of life. Widowed by tragedy, raising an eccentric and troubled son (Noah Wiseman), she is a familiar face in horror films. She is the parent doing her best, which never seems to be quite good enough, and in the tradition of stories like Pet Sematary or The Shining she is dangerously close to the edge when we meet her. Son Sam has an overactive imagination which makes him a keen inventor and illusionist, but it also leaves him horribly prone to nightmares. He almost never sleeps, which means Amelia sleeps less. He is sensitive and sweet, but unable to cease the morbid jabbering of his thoughts in the company of others, he often proves embarrassing to his overtaxed mum.
Barely coping with the twin devils of loneliness and exhaustion, Amelia discovers a mysterious children’s book about a cloaked figure named Mister Babadook, so named for his habit of knocking “Ba-ba-Dook! Dook! Dook!” on the door to be let in. The story turns darker from there, enough to upset mother and son alike. Amelia quickly puts the book out of sight, but the monster becomes Sam’s new obsession. Plotting to trap and destroy the Babadook (which seems more and more real every night) he withdraws further and further into his paranoia until Amelia’s nerves are perilously frayed. She does not stop to consider that maybe the shadowy intruder has begun to change her too.
The Babadook is exceptionally crafted, inventing a plausible storybook hobgoblin and then exploiting his dreadful potency to the very last scream. Not many times in recent memory has an original horror film maxed out its monster so vigorously. The film manages not merely to shock or unsettle. It is genuinely frightening throughout most of its running time, a rare distinction among movies of its kind.
When done with care and skill, an exploration of the desperate lengths required to turn a caring parent on a child arguably makes the most poignant and frightening kind of story. The best ones never lose sight love’s power to overcome any spell of darkness. Whether or not love will triumph in this end is immaterial. Until the very last moment, there must be hope.