Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Jennifer Kent
Stars: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinney, Benjamin Winspear, Tiffany Lyndall-Knight, Chloe Hurn.
Greg King spoke to director Jennifer Kent and star Essie Davis for his Movies At Dusk program on 3WBC 94.1FM
Be afraid, be very afraid!
This effective low budget horror film from Australia has taken the world by storm after a successful debut at the Sundance Film Festival. And it shows that you can make a great horror film without elaborate effects, lots of gore and buckets of blood. One of the better horror films of recent times was James Wan’s The Conjuring, and The Babadook also manages to make your skin crawl.
Amelia (played with conviction by Essie Davis, from The Matrix series, etc) is a single mother raising her young son Samuel (newcomer Noah Wiseman). Amelia is still haunted by the tragic death of her husband wjile he was driving her to the hopsital to give birth to Samuel. But Samuel himself seems to be growing increasingly disturbed, and his behaviour worries his teachers and family. He is also convinced that monsters lurk under his bed, in the closet, or basement of the house.
The titular babadook is a scary creature conjured up from the pages of an illustrated pop-up children’s book that Amelia reads to Samuel. But the book, its scary central figure dressed in black, and its disturbing content worry Amelia. The creepy drawings in the book were designed by American illustrator Alex Juhasz. But even as she tries to destroy the book, it mysteriously keeps returning. And then the images from the book begin to hauntg their dreams. Eventually the creature seems real and malevolent, and before long the bogeyman has taken possession of their lives. Samuel and Amelia struggle to defeat this monster that has taken up residence in both their dreams and their house.
The concept of a child in danger from supernatural forces is a great premise for a horror film, especially potent in the classic The Shining, but this device was also a key driving force of films like The Exorcist, The Omen, etc. And that’s what this genuinely unnerving low budget horror film from Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent does. Kent is better known for her short films, but her feature film debut is striking and marks her as a talent to watch in future.
Working with Polish-born cinematographer Radoslaw Ladczuk she deliberately creates an uneasy mood through the use of moody dim lighting for the interiors. Kent makes superb use of both the claustrophobic settings and an eerie soundscape as things go creak and bump in the night. Unlike many contemporary horror films that equate blood and gore and dismembered body parts with horror, The Babadook is a psychological thriller that uses atmosphere and suggestion to create an uneasy mood. It deals with themes of grief and loss, the past, and those demons, real or imagined, that haunt our lives.
The Babadook is an expansion of her potent short film Monster, which played to great acclaim on the festival circuit a few years ago. Kent uses her limited budget and resources effectively, and eschews the use of CGI effects to create suspense and nasty shocks. She also avoids some of those tropes of the genre that have become tired cliches, and The Babadook seems fresh and exciting because of some of these stylistic decisions. She draws upon her knowledge of the horror genre, and in particular her love of the old silent films, the early films of Polanski and even early German expressionist cinema (films like The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari and Nosferatu, etc) to create the look, feel and texture for The Babadook.
The Babadook is essentially a two-handed drama with much of the action centring around the troubled Samuel and the increasingly erratic and disturbed Amelia. Kent manages to draw extraordinarily committed performances from the pair of leads. Young Noah Wiseman is a find as the troubled young Samuel, who is in nearly every scene and he brings an unnerving intensity to his performance. He effectively conveys a mix of terror and innocence. It is quite a demanding performance for one so young, but Wiseman has a natural presence. And the role of the emotionally fragile Amelia, who comes to doubt her own sanity, is a very different and physically demanding role for Davis, who has come to prominence recently on television in the series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.
There are a couple of peripheral characters, including Daniel Henshall (from Snowtown, etc) as Amelia’s work colleague, and Hayley McElhinney, who plays Amelia’s worried sister, but they are not really given much to do.