Classifying Jennifer Kent’s feature debut, The Babadook, is tricky. Ostensibly this is a horror film—freaky stuff happens on an escalating scale, so qualifying Kent’s tale of a single mother’s fractious relationship with her young son with genre tags seems like a perfectly logical move. But The Babadook is so layered, so complex and just so goddamned dramatic that categorizing it outright feels reductive to the point of insult. There’s a grand divide between what Kent has done here and what most of us consider horror. You’ll spend your first week after the experience sleeping with the lights on. You will also come away enriched and provoked.
Australian actress-turned-filmmaker Kent has made a movie about childhood, about adulthood, and about the nagging fears that hound us from one period to the next. Given that The Babadook’s driving supernatural element derives from an innocuous-looking children’s book, it’s remarkably mature. Kent’s clean, controlled mise-en-scène oozes sophistication while belying the terrors bubbling beneath its surface. There’s a monster in the closet—and under the bed, and in the armoire, and in the basement—but the film’s human concerns are emotional in nature. They’re not aided by the ephemeral evil lurking in the dark places of its characters’ hearts, of course; going through personal trauma is enough of a chore when you’re not being stalked by the bogeyman.
But there’s a fundamental crack in the bond Amelia (Essie Davis) shares with her son Sam (Noah Wiseman), and it’s far more insidious than any ill-intentioned specter. The Babadook begins in a dream, where Amelia relives the evening she gave birth to Sam and lost her husband in a grisly car accident en route to the hospital. It’s a cruel twist of fate that has left her shell-shocked and struggling seven years on; she does the best she can to love her boy in the face of tragic circumstances, but Sam’s a handful and Amelia’s exhausted, so you might forgive her if she’s occasionally short on patience. We feel their loss, and the strain it puts on their relationship, immediately.
Then Sam finds a mysterious tome sitting on his shelf—with no explanation as to how it got there, and none needed—called Mister Babadook, a pop-up joint about a creature that menaces sleeping tots. This goes over poorly with Sam, who has an overactive imagination as is—he keeps anti-monster ordinances squirreled away throughout the house. At first Amelia writes off his anxieties as fantasy. But then she begins hearing phantom knocks on the door and bumps in the night; she starts to spot fleeting hints of the babadook’s form in every glance she casts.
Or does she? The Babadook makes just enough room to breed ambiguity, but Kent isn’t coyly playing with twists and reveals. She’s made a monster movie through and through, filtered through expressionist lenses, its influences worn with pride. Bedecked in top hat, trench coat and long-fingered gloves, the babadook looks like a marriage of Freddy Krueger and Mr. Hyde, with the vocals of Kayako Saeki (The Grudge) and the transience of Jaws’ great white. We’re all afraid of something, and the babadook has been designed to remind us all of our individual something. It’s a fabulous screen monster, one of the best you’ll see in the modern horror canon, and Kent uses the babadook’s visage with sparing efficacy.
That restraint harmonizes with her starkly set stage. The Babadook presents us with a barren world. Nary a soul wanders through the frame without Kent’s explicit permission, all the better to emphasize Amelia’s increasing isolation. Kent takes no false steps, and her sense of self-possession is refreshing. There isn’t a single detail displayed here that isn’t essential to the story. We are very much involved with Amelia’s ordeal, and as things go from bad to worse to petrifying, the visuals envelope us in their impeccable simplicity. The film’s spartan approach to world-building works beautifully, buttressed by a depth of catharsis more than the volume of its frights. Make no mistake, The Babadook is utterly terrifying, but it’s also intimate, touching and, above all else, heartfelt. Call it horror, call it melodrama, call it what you like—this is a great film.
Director: Jennifer Kent
Writer: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman
Release Date: Nov. 28, 2014
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has written about film for the web since 2009, and has contributed to Paste since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant and Movie Mezzanine. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently, he has given up on shaving.