If horror movies were somehow constructed via a sports-style draft, imagine what visual and storytelling elements would be top picks. Flickering lightbulbs? Sure thing. Mysterious basement? You bet. Shrieking children? Most definitely. So it’s a testament to Australian director Jennifer Kent’s feature debut “The Babadook” that it manages to incorporate so many of these ingredients from lesser films to create something that’s compelling even when it’s not disturbing on a primordial level.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a nursing home worker and single mom raising Sam (Noah Wiseman), her monsters-obsessed son. In the opening scenes, Amelia is an attentive mother, patiently guiding Sam through his fears and helping him quell his urges to make weapons to vanquish unseen baddies. As she reads him bedtime stories and lets him take up the opposite side of the bed, there’s still an uneasy sense of physical space. The unseen barrier between them is the memory of Oskar, Amelia’s husband who was killed in a car accident en route to the hospital right before Sam’s birth.
This simmering familial tension bubbles to the surface with the sudden appearance of an innocent-looking children’s book titled “Mister Babadook.” As Amelia flips through the pages and reads them aloud, the deceptively simple rhyme turns sinister and the titular spooky black specter in the book’s pop-up illustrations (expertly rendered by designer Alex Juhasz) sends Sam into a crying fit. Comforting her frightened child, we see the first subtle indications that the story may have affected her, too.
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The ill-advised late-night story session is the first example of Kent’s repeated choice to give us the cause and aftermath of key expository moments while editing out the central action. The last pages of the Babadook story cuts to Sam’s fear weeping, with no sense of how long Amelia has attempted to undo the damage. The beginnings of a playground misadventure reach their most dangerous point, but we’re left to fill in exactly how that too ends in tears. It’s a small but supremely effective storytelling device that helps stack up the tension.
As Sam’s makeshift weapons jeopardize his school work and his repetition of the dangers of the Babadook endanger Amelia’s various friendships, the two retreat to their home, both ravaged by the psychological threat of the storybook monster. It’s there that Amelia’s dreams start blending with her shifting sense of reality, mirrored nicely by Kent’s introduction of some familiar, but no less upsetting, sequences of supernatural horror.
The specificity of the Sam-Amelia relationship also keeps the film from stagnating once their house becomes a physical embodiment of Amelia’s mental prison. Every outside character interaction and development within the confines of the house is in service of deepening our understanding of the complicated history between mother and son. Sam’s obsession with keeping the idea of the Babadook alive is as strong as Amelia’s insistence on banishing all memory of her late husband to the room below the house.
The film takes great care to sharpen the details in Amelia’s life so that when trouble comes along, it magnifies her anxiety. The family house is a visual counterpart to Amelia’s mood, a palette of dark blues that lets Davis’ blonde hair and plain clothing pop out even in its dimly-lit corners. As Amelia descends into lengthy periods of mental unrest, that head of hair progresses from neatly kempt to a disheveled mess. The occasional distorted-focus POV shot also gives us a firsthand indication that this ordeal is affecting her more than she’s letting on.
The family roles are established so strongly in the film’s opening scenes that it’s made all the more unsettling to see the two gradually begin to swap the roles of protector and antagonist. Davis’ slow transformation in demeanor and appearance leaves room for Kent’s script to find new ways of highlighting Sam’s childlike love and devotion alongside Amelia’s uneasiness to relinquish the past. Some of Sam’s early disturbed-child shriek sessions and the late-film exponential ramp-up of one character’s psychotic tendencies may be slightly overemphasized, but all of it is rooted in the careful groundwork laid early on.
“The Babadook” isn’t a transcendent horror film. But its ability to handle and manipulate the conventional tropes apparent in so many of its peers makes it a satisfying ride.
Criticwire Grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The heavy amount of house-centered action will probably make this is as effective in living rooms as it is in theaters. The film is well-positioned to find an audience with stateside fans of the last few James Wan films and seems likely to end up with a midnight label.