Director: Jennifer Kent
Writer: Jennifer Kent
Stars: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McElhinney, Daniel Henshall
Release date: October 24th, 2014
Distributor: Cinetic Media/eOne Films International
Running time: 94 minutes
Best part: Kent’s direction.
Worst part: The creaky CGI.
Horror and romantic-comedy, the only two genres with long-lasting demographics, keep Hollywood in operation. For generations, adolescents have made a habit of catching (sneaking into) the latest celluloid bloodbath. Thanks to their buying power, the studios don’t need to try. Seriously, why do you think we keep getting Friday the 13th remakes and Paranormal Activity sequels? However, several movements and industries, residing well outside the studio system, still seek to change the game.
Australian horror cinema – existing since the industry’s beginnings – revolves around irking grimaces from film-goers and commendations from critics. Connecting with Ozploitation buffs, horror freaks, and each demographic in between, break-out frightener The Babadook loudly asks the question: Why aren’t Australians watching Australian movies? Despite the lack of transforming robots and superheroes, Aussie industry does deliver worthwhile entertainment. In 2014, The Rover, Predestination, and Son of a Gun grasped tightly onto worldwide acclaim. The Babadook, despite the limited budget and small scale, is the David to Hollywood’s Goliath. Blitzing Kevin Smith’s Tusk at this year’s Fantastic Fest, the movie has more supporters than slip-ups. How did this happen? Well, the story makes for gripping and intelligent horror cinema. In the first scene, the movie establishes its tone and never lets up. Amelia (Essie Davis) is pregnant with her first child. En route to the hospital, her husband is killed by an oncoming vehicle. We jump seven years, and Amelia is a single mum struggling to juggle responsibilities. Her precocious son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), makes dangerous contraptions and causes trouble in the school yard. After pulling Samuel out of school, our widowed lead is soon hounded by her employer, her sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney), the next-door neighbour Mrs. Roach (Barbara West), and social services.
Obviously, calling attention to spoilers would be unnecessary. Despite modern horror’s cash-grabbing, made-by-committee aura, each entry deserves credit. Tackling one of cinema’s most subjective genres, The Babadook enters the underdog and emerges the deserving victor. Void of jump-scares, debauchery, and unlikable teenagers, it dodges almost every horror trope. Despite touching upon The Shining, The Exorcist, The Ring, and Carrie, this Aussie fright-fest holds up to criticism. Its story takes a peculiar turn after Amelia and Sam find a disturbing pop-up book in his room. Reading it together, they unearth a nightmarish, Nosferatu-esque figure dressed in hipster threads. Similarly to Sinister‘s film-reel and The Conjuring‘s Annabelle doll, the titular children’s book causes enough scares to have an asylum named after it. Complete with bleak colour patterns, distressing imagery, and threatening messages, it’s an unholy creation. Set to be released as a collectable, the question must be asked: Who would want this thing?! Writer/director Jennifer Kent, expanding upon her notable 2005 short, enriches each momentous frame. As our mother/son duo flips through the book, Kent stretches the stakes and tension to breaking point. Setting paranoia upon its characters and audience, multiple threads are let loose. Is it a supernatural force or a stalker? And why is this happening to them, specifically? Throughout this gothic freak-out, her directorial flourishes and commendable intentions fit each twist and turn.
“If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” (Amelia (Essie Davis), The Babadook).
Relishing in its smaller moments, The Babadook crafts terror, suspense, and, subtext. Kent’s visuals – turning wholesome settings into labyrinthine deathtraps – elevates conventional material. Utilising a muted colour palette, sweeping cinematography, and haunting shadows, her direction lingers on terrifying imagery without indulging in blood. Holding the scare tactics back for extended periods, this frightener knows when and how to bump in the night. Fuelled by purpose and reason, the story examines many common familial and social issues. The central conflict, kick-starting after Samuel’s excision from school, sinks into the skin. The story, possessing each character with realistic personalities and emotional currents, carries a human touch. Examining lower-middle class issues, the central dynamic overshadows the spooky creatures. Pitting spirits and ghouls against emotional demons, it delves intently into Amelia’s psyche. Tackling grief and loneliness, she’s a fascinating protagonist. Amelia – fighting against Samuel’s troubling condition, the world around her, and household scares – is worth siding with. Tackling the school system, parenthood, and mental instability, its agenda integrates with its blood-curdling scenarios. Davis, known for remarkable TV and theatre appearances, is one of Australia’s most consistent actresses. Switching between innocent mother and psychotic disturbance, her searing turn elevates the material. Wiseman’s wondrous performance, jumping from manic glee to shrieking chaos, elevates the drama.
Sticking to story and character over box-office receipts and target demographics, The Babadook terrorizes the competition. Peering over big-name horror filmmakers’ shoulders, Kent delivers enough game-changing sequences and stylish flourishes to stand out. Beyond the narrative and technical achievements, Davis and Wiseman elevate the material. As 2014’s biggest sleeper hit, this horror-thriller/psychological-drama boots Australia’s film industry. This year, genre cinema was stolen by a nation of convicts.