For as long as I can remember, there hasn’t been a more starved yet persevering type of movie fan than the fans of horror. They are legion, and they mostly fit in two categories: those who are consistently disappointing by current horror releases (and who wouldn’t?) but keep watching them because what else are they gonna watch; and those who look at sub-genres of the past, and delight in the campy gore of yesteryear because they can’t find the same pleasures in contemporary cinema.
With such an arid landscape, it’s always a surprise when someone manages to make a solid horror movie. What isn’t a surprise is that The Babadook, the feature-length debut of director Jennifer Kent, has become one of the most buzzed about movies of the year on the internet. It has been praised by informal bloggers and print critics alike (it currently stands at an outstanding 98% on Rotten Tomatoes), with most of them calling it “the best horror movie in God knows how many years” or “the best horror movie since such and such”. It’s high praise for an Australian movie with a minuscule budget, and even higher praise for a movie operating in this genre. In short, everybody is flipping over The Babadook.
Before I continue with this review, let me say right out front that I am not trying to rain on anyone’s parade here. I think The Babadook is a really good movie. To put it in movie critic terms, it is the best horror movie I’ve seen since The Orphanage (which was curiously also a foreign import). What I will say, though, is that one of the biggest reasons to praise The Babadook is something so basic in almost every other existing popular genre of filmmaking, that it seems almost ridiculous to rave about a movie based on it. I am talking, of course, about the fact that The Babadook is a movie about something.
More specifically, it is the story of the relationship between Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son Sam (Noah Wiseman). Amelia’s husband died in a car accident when he was driving her to the hospital where she would give birth to Sam. Seven years after the accident, Amelia still finds herself in a rather deep state of grief that is just not helping her go through the day-to-day of raising a child as problematic as Sam, who seems to have a natural fascination with putting himself in dangerous situations. That might be the reason why, when a mysterious children’s book appears on his shelf, he doesn’t hesitate to have his mom read it to him as a bedtime story.
Unlickily for them, the book is called “Mister Babadook”, and it’s about an evil spirit that, once inside your house, won’t stop until he consumes you from the inside. Needless to say, Sam is scared shitless, and Amelia must spend her nights sleeplessly calming a screaming child. Sam starts talking about the Babadook coming to murder him and his mother, which is ridiculous, except for the fact that strange things do seem to be happening over at Amelia’s house, which means either Sam is playing a diabolically elaborate prank on her, she is starting to go crazy, or the book is actually haunted. All terrible, terrible options.
So here’s the thing: the Babadook enters the picture as a thematically relevant character. It wouldn’t be fair to call him a metaphor for Amelia and Sam’s grief, but rather a thematic mcguffin, an antagonist of sorts, but one that stems from the deep psyche of the characters. What’s more important, the movie not only has a thematic hold on the characters, but is tightly focused on said themes. Kent, who also wrote the screenplay, doesn’t leave any fat on the movie, it is lean and clean, with every sequence, cut, and scare beginning its life with the characters and moving from there into spectacle, and never the other way around.
Now, that’s something that is good about The Babadook, but should really be present in all movies that want to call themselves good. What is truly extraordinary is the way Kent so confidently plays all the movie’s notes in her first attempt directing a full-length movie. Her talent for building tension is uncanny. Being a person who doesn’t generally like to be scared, watching The Babadook was a horrible experience. I had never felt more tense in my entire life, needlessly wishing I didn’t have to see what was coming next.
Now, even more extraordinary than that, is the fact that Kent, while exercising such a tight grip over the direction of the movie, somehow manages to shift the perspective of the movie from Amelia and Sam’s point-of-view without us really noticing, and then proceeds to alternate back and forth between the two building up on the stone-solid foundations he set up in the movie’s first act. Equally impressive is the work of Essie Davis, who plays this dichotomy and shifting focus with the precision of a person who can control her screaming and shouting like a virtuoso controls their musical instrument.
The Babadook might not be the most exceptional movie of the year, but it is something special, and it announces what will hopefully be a long and successful career for Jennifer Kent, and an inspiration for future directors interested in horror.
Grade: 8 out of 10