Film Review: ‘The Babadook’

The Babadook Sundance

Strange things hover in the shadows, but the real terror lurks deeper within, in tyro helmer Jennifer Kent's accomplished and imaginative psychological horror tale.

Like the elaborate children’s pop-up book that conjures its eponymous bogeyman, “The Babadook” offers a wonderfully hand-crafted spin on a tale oft told, of parent and child in an old, dark house where things go bump (and scratch and growl and hover in the shadows) in the night. Steeped in references to early cinema, magic and classic fairy tales — which, at times, causes it to feel like a scary-movie version of “Hugo” — this meticulously designed and directed debut feature from writer-director Jennifer Kent (expanded from her award-winning short, “Monster”) manages to deliver real, seat-grabbing jolts while also touching on more serious themes of loss, grief and other demons that can not be so easily vanquished. Warmly received in its Sundance preem, where it was snapped up by IFC Midnight, the pic should delight genre aficionados at fests and in niche theatrical play, but may prove a touch too cerebral for “Saw” or “Paranormal Activity”-style crossover play.

The movie takes place nearly seven years after the fatal car accident that killed Oskar (Ben Winspear) as he was rushing his pregnant wife, Amelia (Essie Davis) to the delivery room. Mother and child survived the crash, and as its seventh anniversary approaches, they still live very much in the grip of that trauma. High-strung and emotionally volatile, with a penchant for building homemade weapons and acting out at school, young Samuel (Noah Wiseman) clearly longs for a father figure and feels self-imposed pressure, at age 6, to be his mother’s protector. Amelia, who makes ends meet as an elder-care nurse, can’t even bring herself to celebrate Samuel’s birthday on the actual day, and seems increasingly overwhelmed by the demands of caring for the temperamental tyke.

Then, rather mysteriously, a book appears on Samuel’s bookshelf — a children’s book, or so it seems, large in format and handsomely bound in crimson and black. The title is “Mr. Babadook,” no author credited, and it tells the story of a curious creature, squat and top-hatted with two strange spiky feet, who raps three times on your door and asks to be invited in — something, the book goes on to show, one does at one’s own risk. The drawings (designed for the film by American illustrator Alex Juhasz) are gothic in look, monochrome and sharp-edged, with three-dimensional folds that open out and levers that move back and forth. Imagine an Edward Gorey archive published by Taschen and you begin to get the idea.

The book is set aside soon enough, but the damage has been done. Soon, the sight and sounds of Mr. Babadook begin to haunt the dreams of mother and son alike — or could it be they are actually wide awake? The book is destroyed, but it comes back — in one of Kent’s great, spine-tingling inventions — with new pages presaging a very grim outcome indeed. And slowly but surely, life, which is already fairly off-kilter here, begins to imitate art. (The haunted-book concept is, at least in part, a nod to George Melies’ 1900 short “The Magic Book,” one of a half dozen films by the pioneering “cine-magician” that seem to be playing in a perpetual loop whenever Samuel turns on the TV.)

Yet, even before anyone cracks “Mr. Babadook’s” cover, “The Babadook” has the elaborately fabricated look of a giant pop-up movie, sporting the kind of intricately detailed and resolutely analog visual design one associates with the early films of Terry Gilliam or the recent ones of Wes Anderson. The characters inhabit a world that seems drained of color, with everything from clothes to walls to furniture painted in shades of gray and black, as if they, too, were in a perpetual state of mourning. That creates just the right feel of subjective reality for a movie about monsters that spring not from some far-flung demonic realm but rather from the darkness of our own subconscious. Indeed, Mr. Babadook’s closest predecessor in the canon of bigscreen bogeymen may be the murderous, “psychoplasmic” offspring of the mentally disturbed mother in Cronenberg’s “The Brood.” (Unsurprisingly, when the “monster” makes his first full-bodied appearance, it’s as a terrific piece of stop-motion animation.)

It may be impossible to make a horror movie nowadays without having at least one character, at some point, vomit up the tar-like goo that has become the standard signifier of demonic possession, but even when “The Babadook” traffics in the familiar, Kent manages to put her own signature spin on things. Like Bruno Bettelheim and Angela Carter before her, she’s fascinated by the primal pull of the fantastic, and why the classic fairy tales loom so large in our collective unconscious. But she also has a Melies-like sense of showmanship, and for all its theoretical leanings, “The Babadook” rivals the recent work of James Wan (“The Conjuring,” “Insidious”) in its ability to goose an audience with old-fashioned sound effects, shadow play and the power of suggestion.

Through it all, Kent never compromises the emotional reality of her characters or exploits their suffering for cheap shock effects. Davis, a sturdy supporting player in many Oz films and TV series best known internationally for her work in the two “Matrix” sequels, is a revelation here as the emotionally fragile widow and mother whose grief gradually decays into something more sinister and Jack Torrance-esque. In what is almost exclusively a two-hander, she’s very well matched by Wiseman, a freakishly intense child actor making a very impressive debut. Their ultimate showdown with their unwelcome visitor is harrowing and strangely moving in equal measure,  as it suggests that all of us who have loved and lost may have a Babadook of our own lurking somewhere deep within.

In addition to the standout work of production designer Alex Holmes, the pic sports an ace tech package that more than belies its modest budget (reportedly $2.3 million), including Polish d.p. Radek Ladczuk’s sleek, shadowy widescreen lensing.

Film Review: 'The Babadook'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Park City at Midnight), Jan. 17, 2014. Running time: 93 MIN.

Production

(Australia) An IFC Midnight (in U.S./Latin America) release of a Screen Australia and Causeway Films presentation in association with the South Australian Film Corp., Smoking Gun Prods. and Entertainment One. (International sales: eOne Films Intl., Toronto.) Produced by Kristina Ceyton, Kristian Moliere. Executive producers, Jonathan Page, Michael Tear, Jan Chapman, Jeff Harrison.

Crew

Directed, written by Jennifer Kent. Camera (color, widescreen), Radek Ladczuk; editor, Simon Njoo; music, Jed Kurzel; music supervisor, Andrew Kotatko; production designer, Alex Holmes; art directors, Alex Holmes, Karen Hannaford; set decorator, Jennifer Drake; set designer, Ross Perkin; costume designer, Heather Wallace; sound (Dolby Digital), Des Kenneally; sound designer, Frank Lipson; re-recording mixer, Pete Smith; visual effects supervisor, Marty Pepper; stunt coordinator, Reg Roordink; line producer, Julie Byrne; associate producer, Pete Best; assistant director, Bard Lanyon; second unit camera, Nima Nabilli Rad, Hugh Freytag; casting, Nikki Barrett.

With

Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McElhinney, Daniel Henshall, Barbara West, Ben Winspear.

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  1. Leonard Pollack says:

    “Old-fashioned sound effects,”? Really? The sound effects were more over the top than any horror film I have ever seen. Hated this movie due to all the critical notices. I’m convinced,Critics have no mor a clue of what is great film making.

    • wiles11 says:

      So basically Leonard reads all the reviews BEFORE he sees the movie, just so he can raise or lower his expectations like a fool and then automatically take up the contrary position, you know, to “show those critics what’s what”. He also hasn’t seen many films, thus his rage when there’s a general consensus. If they all hated this film, he’d be on here blathering about how great it was and how they all got it wrong. Oh the crap we have to put up with now that the Internet allows the “true experts” out from under their rocks to have their say. L. O. L.

  2. Cj says:

    Not sure what all the hype is about the babadook? This movie sucked, and was a thriller, more than horror movie. Sick and tres of being ripped off by these B grade movies, that critics try to pawn off as the years best movie! No one makes a good horror movie anymore. The babadook is as bad as the last horror movie I saw from Australia called “wolf creek”. That movie was terrible, as is the babadook. Everyone tries to make these psychological horror/thriller movies, with twists and turns and surprise endings. The babadook had none of those, but was more a mother and son struggling with the death of her husband/father, and the babadook clouded thoughts and actions as they heal. For me the movie was maybe a 4 out of 10. Glad I didn’t pay to see it, or I’d be pissed. Or you can listen to all the critics, and go waste your $10-12 at the theater. Personally I’d wait for red box, or Netflix to grab it. Maybe the critics get a cut of profits, for boasting and building up these B grade movies? Not sure why, but they always build up the worst movies. Maybe that’s the point? Either way I see nothing special that would make me believe or think the main character, (I believe her real name is Essie? ) deserves awards as the critics state. She’s no better than any other actress in any other horror/thriller movie. So yourselves a favor and save the money, find anoyher movie to throw our hard earned cash at. The babadook is not the one. What a horrible movie!

    • wiles11 says:

      So the movie’s NOT a horror movie, something everyone involved with it admits to, but because a dummy like you EXPECTS it to be a horror movie and is let down because of his own ignorance, it must be the fault of the critics? Maybe if you broadened your tiny mind about ALL MOVIES in general, you’d be more accepting that not every film with “scary” scenes is a horror movie. You’re right about one thing, though, ITS A MOVIE ABOUT A MOTHER AND SON STRUGGLING WITH THE DEATH OF HER HUSBAND/HIS FATHER. That’s it. Period. Clearly ‘Cj’ got butthurt because he got all lathered up expecting something completely different. Good sweet CHRIST why can’t people less narrow-minded?!?

  3. This brilliant film used the trappings of a horror film to lay raw the real terrors of being a parent. Especially a single parent. It wasn’t about ghosts, monsters, or anything supernatural. It was real psychological thriller about parental insecurity. IMHO a true breakthrough film.

  4. Mark Will says:

    Great review! First one I’ve seen that explores the level of George Melies’ influence. Interesting too is the reference/comparison to James Wan — a director that also hails from Oz.

  5. Jim Barker says:

    Loved the film, one that reveals plenty on repeated viewings. For those interested in an in-depth analysis with regards to the use of allegory and expressionism, you can read more here: https://thebarkbitesback.wordpress.com/2014/11/05/560/

  6. jay says:

    This movie went there. Thats all I will say.

  7. Reblogged this on HORROR BOOM and commented:
    Yet, even before anyone cracks “Mr. Babadook’s” cover, “The Babadook” has the elaborately fabricated look of a giant pop-up movie, sporting the kind of intricately detailed and resolutely analog visual design one associates with the early films of Terry Gilliam or the recent ones of Wes Anderson. The characters inhabit a world that seems drained of color, with everything from clothes to walls to furniture painted in shades of gray and black, as if they, too, were in a perpetual state of mourning. That creates just the right feel of subjective reality for a movie about monsters that spring not from some far-flung demonic realm but rather from the darkness of our own subconscious. Indeed, Mr. Babadook’s closest predecessor in the canon of bigscreen bogeymen may be the murderous, “psychoplasmic” offspring of the mentally disturbed mother in Cronenberg’s “The Brood.” (Unsurprisingly, when the “monster” makes his first full-bodied appearance, it’s as a terrific piece of stop-motion animation.)
    -From the attached Variety review by Scott Foundas

    Ooooh we cannot freaking WAIT to see this. Now, we’re off to look for the short. Terry Gilliam fan? Fan of Tim Burton’s non-big budget movies? Check out the trailer immediately, don’t wait for us to post it!

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