Still reeling from the loss of her husband six years previously, Ameila's (Essie Davis) life is dominated by her difficult son (Noah Wiseman). Behavioural problems, temper tantrums and his adamant belief that monsters are lurking within his wardrobe are tremendous pressures on Ameila's mental state. Things go from bad to worse when Ameila reads what she assumes is a children's book until the book gets steadily darker in tone. This book seems to raise something unearthly evil which sets about terrifying the single mother and her child.
It is refreshing to see a horror film take a different path than taking the one that relies the ever cheapening tactic of a jump scare (one that James Wan constantly uses). Two recent examples include Oculus, which tried to generate its horror from the ambiguity between fiction and reality (with varying degrees of success) and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook. One of the finest horror movies of the last decade is The Orphanage, where the story was driven by the human drama just as much as the horror. Kent’s The Babadook is very similar as Ameila’s worsening mental condition and relationship with her son drives the narrative forward as much as the Babadook in its monstrous form.
Evidently, Ameila is still deeply affected by the loss of her husband six years previously, and the life of her son is constant reminder of that fateful day (her husband died whilst he was driving Ameila to hospital to give birth to her son). This, perhaps, deep within her elicits feelings of parental hatred against her son (something discussed in Lynne Ramsey’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and, to an extent, Richard Donner’s The Omen) as his endless demands, behavioural issues at school and generally being an irritating brat add further strain on Ameila’s fragile mental state.
Ameila’s fragile mental state is due to a number of factors, loneliness (the way she looks longingly at a kissing couple suggest just this), depressions and sexual frustration (there is no evidence to suggest that she has had a sexual partner since her husband). Essie Davis’ performance is superb (Noah Wiseman is equally as impressive) as she is sympathetic and terrifying in equal measure as her deteriorating mental state, and eventual possession from the Babadook himself, makes her a danger not only to herself but to all those around her because the Babadook isn’t a physical monster but a beast that represents her darkest and deepest feelings and brings out the very worst in the central characyer.
Kent’s The Babadook is a chilling horror film, the sound design is stunningly effective, the production grim and moody, and The Babadook beast, wearing a black clock and top hat with razors for hands (much like Freddie Kruger), is a horrifying, nightmarish creation. In relation to the film’s horror elements, The Babadook isn’t startlingly original; there are elements of The Amityville Horror, The Omen and even The Exorcist, but Kent’s focus on Polanski like psychological terror (The Tenant and Repulsion) places the film way above the multitude of horror films that rely on cheap tactics to create the scares. The Babadook does not rely on such cheap tactics (though conventions of the genre are recycled here), but instead looks to get under the skin and into the mind.