The best of horror films find you questioning whether or not there’s any “monster” at all. My favorite of the new millennium is 2006’s “The Descent” from Neil Marshall, and part of its brilliance lies in the display of a race of sightless, underground creatures–that possibly only exist in the imagination of one character. Or think back to 1980’s “The Shining” from Stanley Kubrick. Until a key scene, in which a “ghost” unlocks a pantry door, every “supernatural” occurrence just may be the doing of Jack Nicholson’s recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance character. With comparisons to classics like “The Shining”, as well as a glowing endorsement from Oscar-winning director William “The Exorcist” Friedkin (who called it “the most terrifying film he’s ever seen”), Australia’s “The Babadook” enters the busy awards season towing a load of positive reaction. In fact, it’s recently won Best First Feature from the New York Films Critic Circle. Does it live up to its billing? Well, it IS pretty darn scary.
Amelia (an astonishing Essie Davis) is a widowed, single-mom, raising her troubled six-year-old son, Samuel (a very effective, Noah Wiseman). Sam is not your average child. Occasionally aggressive, and plagued by a vivid “imagination”, Sam’s behavioral issues gets him indefinitely suspended from school, adding extra strain to the workload of his already overtaxed mother. Sam also has trouble sleeping, which in turn keeps Amelia awake all night, and therefore too exhausted to carry out her job at a local health care facility. Then a mysterious children’s story appears on Sam’s book shelf. “The Babadook” is a macabre, pop-up style book, featuring a dark hat-and-cloak wearing tormentor dubbed “Mr. Babadook”. And, apparently, the more you are aware of “Mr. Babadook”, the more ubiquitous he becomes. And Amelia’s sleep-deprived, fragile psyche, along with Sam’s cloying, consistent neediness, sets up an impending situation that’s barreling towards horrific disaster. Can “The Babadook” be stopped in time?
Although this is writer/director Jennifer Kent’s feature debut, she shows remarkable poise–as well as a healthy appreciation for horror film history, and European Expressionism and Impressionism in cinema. The influence of Georges Melies and Robert Wiene is all over “The Babadook”, with a healthy dose of Jean Epstein, Roman Polanski and Mario Bava too. I freaking love the homages. And Ms. Kent’s insistence, and reliance, on low-fi and handmade effects is admirable, in this CGI-addicted industry. The movie is truly terrifying in spots, and the old-fashioned special effects compliment the film-making style wonderfully. Plus, there are the constant, somewhat subtle, winks and metaphors concerning the difficulty of motherhood (and the “horrors” of parenting), that only enriches the film’s already robust storyline. If “The Babadook” isn’t quite the best film of the year, it’s very likely the best horror film of the season. It brings a welcome bit of class to a much-maligned genre–and it’s damn unsettling.