×

Film Review: ‘The Babadook’

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.

With:

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

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

More Film

  • Cat in the Wall Movie Sarajevo

    Sarajevo Film Festival Builds Bridges Through Art

    Rising from the rubble of the Bosnian War to become one of Southeastern Europe’s leading film and TV industry events, the Sarajevo Film Festival has plenty to celebrate as it marks its 25th edition this year. The festival was established in 1995 during the four-year siege of Sarajevo as part of an effort to help [...]

  • 'ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band

    Film Review: 'ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band From Texas'

    Settling in to watch “ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas,” you may have a burning question that applies to almost no other rock documentary, and that is: Who, exactly, are these guys? The ones behind the beards? If you’re old enough, of course, you probably know that ZZ Top started out, in 1969, [...]

  • Patricia Louisiana Knop Dead: Screenwriter Was

    Screenwriter Patricia Louisianna Knop Dies at 78

    Screenwriter Patricia Louisianna Knop, who collaborated with her producer-director husband Zalman King on erotically-charged films of the late 1980s and 1990s including “Siesta” and “9 1/2 Weeks,” died Aug. 7 in Santa Monica after a lengthy illness. “9 1/2 Weeks,” starring Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger, was directed by Adrian Lyne, co-produced by King and [...]

  • (L-R) NELL WILLIAMS as Eliza, VIVEIK

    How 'Blinded by the Light' Brought Bruce Springsteen's Music to the Screen for a Song

    Blinded by the Light co-writer/director Gurinder Chadha knows firsthand what it feels like to be an outsider. Born in Kenya when the country was a British colony, she grew up part of the Indian/Asian diaspora who made their way from East Africa to London. For that reason, the 59-year-old’s movies has always dealt with the [...]

  • Studio Movie Grill Announces New Theater

    Studio Movie Grill Announces New Los Angeles-Area Dine-In Theater (EXCLUSIVE)

    The Studio Movie Grill circuit will open a new dine-in theater in the Glendale, Calif. Arts District, CEO Brian Schultz announced Friday. The new theater complex will be 60,000 square feet with 10 screens and will take the place of the former location of the MGN 5-Star Cinema, located near the Glendale Galleria, in the [...]

  • Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet in

    Fall Movie Preview 2019: From 'It: Chapter 2' to 'Little Women'

    Summer may be ending, but that doesn’t mean there will be a dearth of content at the multiplexes. On the contrary, studios are filling up theaters with Oscar-season content, popcorn fare and family films through the end of the year. From Greta Gerwig’s star-studded “Little Women” adaptation to the highly anticipated sequel to “It,” Variety [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content