2014 has been a great year for both blockbusters, low-budget thrillers, and documentaries of all kinds. But who would’ve expected that a tiny Australian horror film would rank among the most critically acclaimed films of the bunch. Surprising but true, “The Babadook” is the answer to all those who have been begging for a scary movie that is actually scary.
A single mother, distraught by the violent death of her husband, battles with her son’s fear of a monster lurking in the house, but soon discovers a sinister presence all around her, and starts thinking that her son may not be as delusional as she thought.
Let me get this out of the way; this is one of the scariest films I have ever seen. I honestly can’t even remember when I last felt so uneasy and uncomfortable watching a movie. Maybe it’s the eerie surrealism of the bleak and depressing image-compositions, or the immense feeling of sadness and compassion for a grieving mother and her troubled boy that makes the psychological terror so convincing and real. Something about it just gets to me. It’s like a shiver that doesn’t go away, or goosebumps that won’t retract. Scary, isn’t it? That’s a question I haven’t asked myself for a long time.
The key ingredient that spices things up more than usual here is the reality-rooted storyline. The first 45 minutes of “The Babadook” are full-on emotional drama, presenting a family torn by death, and deeply impacted by loss of love. At first you probably won’t get why the creature is doing what it does, but the more times you put the film on ‘repeat’, the more you realise that the evil goes far beyond the menace of a tall dark monster with top-hat and black coat. I won’t spoil anything for those who have not had the chance to see it yet, but let’s just say that this is anything but your average take on the boogeyman.
Jennifer Kent serves as both screenwriter and director, and for a first feature film, this is a truly remarkable achievement. As a matter of fact, it’s an outstanding one. All the pieces fall so smoothly into place, building to a sensational climax that will make your bones run cold as ice. She really has a grip of what makes the genre so frightening, and the way she juggles all the story elements is nothing short of amazing. The gritty realism. The mother-son-relationship. The natural flow of conversations. It works on so many levels, whether it be a tiny visual moment, or a line of nail-biting dialogue. There is so much to sink your teeth into, it almost challenges you to be one step ahead, psychologically.
Another noteworthy thing is the nerve-wracking sound design, which is absolutely essential in generating dread and despair within the audience. It seems as if every scene has been assigned its own specific soundbite, that plays repetitiously to underline the viciousness that is embedded into the mold of the script. You can almost feel your eyes popping when mr. Babadook swoops silently out from a dark corner, moving like a predator ready to strike down on its prey.
Looking on the more physical side of the spectrum, we get some astounding performances from Noah Wieseman and Essie Davis, who needs to get an Oscar nod for her jaw-dropping portrayal of a broken-down widow. The interaction between her and Wieseman feels believable and grounded, and contrary to the traditional tropes, their characters don’t possess special abilities or have some rare disease. They are just ordinary people dealing with ordinary problems, which is what makes us care so deeply for them.