From the very first shot, you can tell that The Babadook has been put together with intelligence and visual flair. Astonishingly, this is writer-director Jennifer Kent’s first feature, but it appears that her previous experience on the other side of the camera has stood her in good stead.
When we are first introduced to widowed single mother Amelia, she has put the death of her husband firmly behind her, and seems the very picture of a good neighbour and good nurse. It’s her young son, Sam, who is the problem. His obsession with killing monsters has led to him crafting homemade weapons. He is alienated from his peers, including his cousin Ruby. He is haunted by violent images, and seems to have no verbal filter. His behaviour is taking its toll on Amelia’s relationship with her sister, and is getting him into serious trouble at school.
The ‘Babadook’ of the title is a monstrous character in a children’s book that appears one day in Amelia’s house. At first, Sam insists that she read it to him, but then he becomes steadily more terrified of, and fixated upon, the mysterious Babadook.
There are moments in the first half hour or so that might be reminiscent of We Need to Talk About Kevin or even The Exorcist, The Omen and various other mainstays of paedophobic horror. After all, what is scarier than the idea that our children might turn on us?
I've always felt there was something far scarier than that, and it would seem that Kent agrees, because the film takes another path. As it goes on, we realise that the real threat is not Sam, or even the Babadook. The real threat is even closer to home.
Horror movies which rely on jump scares or gratuitous torture scenes may have made me startle or wince far more, but The Babadook is one of the most truly chilling films I've ever watched. It made me empathise deeply with a character who, when pushed to her limits, is capable of becoming a monster.
Those of us touched by mental illness know that the scariest things in the world are the ones that dwell in the deepest recesses of our own minds. We may try to shut them away, to starve them, to leave them in the dark, but in the end they will always demand to be let in.
The Babadook dares to confront the sacred cow of the mother-child bond. It deals with the subjects of grief and depression sensitively and intelligently. Where it fails, in my opinion, is in the moments when it loses faith in Essie Davis’ ability to convey those things through her excellent performance, and instead relies on the kind of visual gimmickry that wouldn't look out of place in a Sam Raimi flick. Those tactics have their place, but not in a film as subtle and original as this one.
Although those missteps took me out of the action temporarily (and elicited some giggles from the back of the cinema), this remains one of the boldest, most engrossing films of the year, and the best horror film I've seen since The Orphanage.