Editor’s Note: This review has been republished. It originally posted with the rest of our reviews and coverage at Fantastic Fest this past September.
Back in 2012, director Scott Derrickson and writer C. Robert Cargill screened Sinister (click to read our review). Critic Brian Salisbury introduced the film to the eager Fantastic Fest crowd, and, very fittingly, called it “nightmare fuel“. Well, in the same vein as that film (and other modern horror game changers like Insidious, and The Conjuring), Australia’s own The Babadook shows that there are still untapped areas in the human psyche that, when tapped just right, are plenty capable of scaring even hardened horror fans.
The Babadook is written and directed by Jennifer Kent. It’s not for the faint of heart as Kent is exceptional at creating tension and anxiety in each and every scene. Convincing on even an elementary level, take note all you aspiring filmmakers, this is how to properly use pace and foreshadow for maximum effect. It builds toward the climax and lever lets up. To be fair, as is the case with most horror movie baddies, once you see The Babadook, it does look a tad foolish. But that’s explained and justified (point, Jennifer Kent!). Further, to keep us on edge, the real Babadook is kept in the shadows where it can do the most damage by freaking out our imaginations.
What makes films like Poltergeist and Rosemary’s Baby, pinnacles of horror films is the strong familial drama in the midst of a supernatural, demonic, or otherworldly events. The Babadook is an engaging and dynamic story between a single mother and her young imaginative son. Also, the horror in this story is not from a tangible threat which makes things all the more freaky. It’s an aggressive force that has, for whatever reason, chosen to torment Amelia and Samuel. As if losing her husband on the way to Samuel’s delivery wasn’t hard enough on her (she feels the pain even after almost 7 years), The Babadook wants to claim both their lives.
The psychological terror plays out on a horrific scale, and The Babadook is unrelenting. The story is made all the more intense and affecting because only Amelia and Samuel can see The Babadook. Also, contrary to the advice of many adults, claiming that this monster “doesn’t exist” only makes him stronger; it toughens his resolve to claim them.
What sets this all in motion is, again, the family element. Samuel loves his Mom. He also loves hearing her read him stories. But when he grabs the tale of “Mister Babadook” from his bookshelf, Amelia is shocked and clueless as to how this mysterious and frightening book showed up. Kent’s film is so scary, even the pictures in the book will give you nightmares. But the film becomes even more unsettling thanks to music from Jed Kurzel. He, time and again, puts us on edge with a strange mix of slightly carnival sounding themes mashed with a nightmarish lullaby. This is the stuff bad dreams are made of.
If the frights that The Babadook gives during the film say anything, it’s that this Australian gem could only end in a badass way. And take our word for, it does. Rounding out this fantastically effective shocker is the acting from Essie Davis (Amelia) and Noah Wiseman (Samuel). Davis is just sensational as she, scene by scene, drifts further into insomnia and dementia. It’s bad enough she’s helpless to save herself or Samuel, but she can’t even get a little sleep before things get terrifying. Theres not even reprieve in the day time as she stuggles to keep her job amid dealing with Samuel’s traumatic outbursts, the loss of his Father, and her recently failing metal health.
Even if this is just a movie, it deals with some very tough material. Putting yourself in Amelia’s and Samuel’s shoes it does even more so. By the way, young Wiseman is perhaps the most remarkable child since Pierce Gagnon in Looper . He has a great ability to convincingly take us through the paces that are as terrifying and, possibly, emotionally scarring as say The Exorcist or The Shining. Again, this is nightmare fuel and will, (un)easily, stick with you for quite a while. Just hearing his voice, “Baba-dook-dook-dook” will raise every hair on your body!