The Babadook

Director    Jennifer Kent
Starring    Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Tiffany Lyndall-Knight, Benjamin Winspear, Carmel Johnson
Release    28/11/14 (US) 24/10/14 (UK)    Certificate 15
4 stars

Christopher Ratcliff

28th October 2014

It’s an impressively crowded market on the run-up to Halloween this year. For us sickos we have all manner of chilling treats lined up for our midnight viewing pleasure. There's the slightly shit looking Ouija, marketed as Hasbro’s first ever horror film (next up: ‘Spirograph’ a never-ending Saw style franchise that induces vertigo in every viewer). There’s Annabelle, a prequel and spin-off (Spinquel! Preq-off!!) to last year’s surprisingly not shit The Conjuring. Then there’s also the very shit Dracula Untold and The Boxtrolls which isn’t shit but is unfortunately also not a horror movie.

Hmm, that list fell apart about two films in. Lucky for us there's an alternative to the above imposter and other cynical cash-ins. An alternative that scratches at the window pane, shuffles underneath your bed and raps at your wardrobe door 'ba BA-ba DOOK DOOK DOOK'... He's the top-hatted, spindly fingered ghoul that goes by the name of Mister Babadook. Terrifyingly uncanny yet disturbingly familiar, this heinous creation has helped The Babadook become one of the most satisfying horror films in many years.

Australian horror The Babadook has been on the festival circuit since the beginning of the year, charming and horrifying audiences in equal measure with its mixture of emotional resonance, disarming sense of humour, captivating central performances and palpable dread.

Amelia (Essie Davis) lost her husband seven years ago in a traffic accident whilst driving to the hospital to give birth to their son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Samuel has grown up to become a wild-haired fantasist, unable to socialise with other kids and tirelessly constructing weapons of playground destruction in the cellar. Amelia is understandably failing to keep her shit together.

During Samuel and Amelia's nightly bedtime read, a pop-up book called Mister Babadook suddenly appears on Samuel’s bookshelf. It tells the tale of grizzly haired phantom who will invade your home and turn those you love against you in the most violent way. Guess what the other thing about this book is? Yeah that's right, it's haunted. And you can't get rid of it, not even with fire.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, pigs win, big deal. Let's read Less Than Zero."

Thus begins 94 minutes of intense spookiness and anxiety riddled second-guessing as Amelia succumbs to Mister Babadook's will and Samuel has to fight for his mother's soul. The Babadook's best moments come from the fractious relationship between mother and son, touching on similar themes as We Need to Talk About Kevin. Here there's a subtle hint that Amelia subconsciously blames Samuel for the death of her husband, and a slightly more obvious hint that she can't really stand him because he's so fucking weird.

The seven year-old Noah Wiseman is incredible as Samuel. You'll spend the first half of the film freaked out by his bug-eyed precociousness and thoroughly sympathising with Amelia as she battles with his fear of invisible monsters and wilfully destructive behavioural problems. Although if you ask me, the girl in the treehouse deserved everything she got.

The Babadook's best narrative trick is subverting this dynamic halfway through. As the Babadook takes hold, you realise that it's Samuel who has always been the vulnerable one, as Amelia turns from mealy-mouthed doormat to knife-wielding, puppy-killing, floating psychopath. The child's fears are real, his mother has turned against him. But that's not to say that the boy can't defend himself.

"Alright old-timer, hand over your wallet before I pop you again"

The design of the monster itself is superb. So simple, yet deeply unsettling. The unnaturally wide mouth. The Victorian ghoulishness of his attire. Those freakishly long fingers. You merely need to catch a glimpse of the Babadook during a Google image search for the film in order to feel an unpleasant chill. Personally it invokes the horrifying stories of Struwwelpeter, the German children's book of moralistic yet deeply sadistic tales my Gran used to read to me when I was a young boy. Not that they still affect me today in any untoward manner. The sick bitch.

Jennifer Kent's debut stands out not just for its award-deserving performances and a monster that will keep a generation awake, but also because it’s a masterpiece of technical skill. The editing has a wryness that's similar to an Edgar Wright film or Evil Dead II, giving scenes a certain objective sense of ridiculousness. The palette is all greys and washed out blues, which if nothing else makes it look unlike any representation of small town Australia I've ever seen before.

Where the film truly excels though is in its sound design. The Babadook is truly a film to see in a well equipped cinema. The skittering around the walls, the oppressive bass every time the book opens and the blistering shock of 'ba BA-ba DOOK DOOK DOOK' are absolutely integral to giving you the dreadful willies.

What I now see every time I close my eyelids.

The Babadook has a strong connection to the best of Guillermo Del Toro's work. Horrifying fantasy spilling out of the characters' deepest flaws, only combated through a strengthened familial bond. Amelia and Samuel are absolutely vital to each other's survival despite any resentment or fear they have of each other. But no matter what happens, as long as they trust each other they’ll be okay. If they can trust each other.

If you're a horror geek, The Babadook invokes so many wonderful sources. As well as the ones I've mentioned already, there's the unhinged paranoia of Rosemary's Baby, the gothic enchantment of The Innocents, the disquieting ghost stories of M.R. James and a slew of macabre silent horrors like Haxan or The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Yet The Babadook manages to create something entirely original. Achieving what all the greatest horror films have done in the past by simply turning the normal into the threatening.

What Ring did for wells, long black hair and televisions, The Babadook will do for pop-up books, top hats and mums who hate you a bit.

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