Jennifer Kent’s extraordinary feature-length directorial debut is an astonishing piece of work and a future classic for the horror genre.
Based on her 2005 short-film ‘Monster’, ‘The Babadook’ tells the story of a widowed mother, Amelia (Essie Davis), who battles with her everyday life of being a single mother and her son’s irrational fear of a monster supposedly lurking in the house. Kent’s tale presents the everyday rituals of a child plagued by nightmares – a check in the cupboard and a check under the bed – and by the time the film is over, you’ll find yourselves checking every crevice of your home in search for the demonic creature. It’s part-horror, part-psychological thriller, and part-family drama; but a wholly fascinating insight into the life of a troubled widow and her slowly deteriorating wellbeing.
There’s a muscular sense of confidence in Kent’s debut outing as a director, evident through her composed, patient preference for building tension rather than implementing lousy jump-scares to evoke undeserved audience reactions. The infusion of a provocative family drama within the framework of a supposed paranormal horror narrative is a refreshing take that will undeniably find itself among the great horror films of past decades; despite its initial lukewarm reception by casual filmgoers back in 2014.
The family unit, comprised of Davis’ Amelia and her paranoid son Samuel, is expertly written by Kent. Essie Davis is utterly convincing as the grief-struck single mother, who provides an internalised performance at the verge of implosion at the hands of Samuel’s incessant disobedience. Young Noah Wiseman, whilst infuriating in the role, is superbly cast as the troubled child. His persistent violence outbursts and his nails-on-a-chalkboard high-pitched screams truly get under one’s skin, but that’s the whole point, it’s a source of irritation for the viewer that builds to the eerie atmosphere that consumes the film. But as the film progresses the pair switch roles, Amelia slowly descending into madness and Samuel rising to the occasion to protect his mother, their performances shift into more nuanced territory; an impressive feat for the pair.
The film’s central scare, though, is through its depiction of the everyday. At some point in our lives, we have all been struck by the death of a loved one, and Kent brings to our screens a tale of a mother and son trying to cope in a world where grief surrounds them at every moment of their lives. The film, itself, is extremely Freudian: the monster is not physically alive, but lies in the subconscious of Amelia and Samuel; a monster that has been fabricated by the pair to reflect their constant bereavement. The Babadook itself, then, is a haunting, demonic metaphor for internalised trauma conjured by the violent death of a husband and father – a subtle, but provocative, detail that will resonate with many.
The design of the monster seems to be largely inspired by Kent’s adoration for German Expressionist cinema, with its long, slender arms of Nosferatu and costume design of Dr. Caligari; it’s palpable that her fascination for such icons reflects upon her own creation. Perhaps The Babadook’s monster won’t have the cinematic immortality that its predecessors have rightfully earned, but it will forever remain, to me at least, as one of cinema’s most terrifying creations.
There is no apparent closure to Kent’s tale, and deservedly so. As much as “you can’t get rid of The Babadook”, you can never rid yourself of grief that accompanies the loss of a loved one. We may find in ourselves the ability to accept and adapt to it, but the inner torment and sadness that we feel will always remain. And for that reason, Jennifer Kent’s ‘The Babadook’ is a timeless, terrifying addition to horror cinema. I have a deep adoration for it.
Directed by: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman