While its coldly pristine photography pleases the eyes and the rare female-driven narrative is very much to be appreciated, this insipid excuse of a horror film bores more than anything else. Yes, childrearing is tough and exhaustion could be the least agreeable of sensations, but a tired mother and petulant son do not make for a scary movie. In the course of the story, which weaves together the familiar haunted house setup and a frustrating case of ineffective parenting, we feel sympathetic toward our first overtaxed, then wrongly accused heroine. But fear – that trickiest of emotions to artificially encourage – remains elusive. There are jumpy moments (almost exclusively the result of sudden movements or loud noises) but the difference between such instant, knee-jerk reactions and the lingering, purely psychological response of dread should be clear.
And so we wait for the poor woman to relax, the nasty kid to calm down, and the director to stop startling us with pop-ups or screams. But that’s pretty much it. The performance by Essie Davis is intense and technically sound, marking the progression of her character's unravelling with escalating force. But seen from the perspective of a genre film lover, it feels like a wasted effort in a fundamentally misguided attempt to terrorise. ZS
PRO: Whose mind is it anyway?
Worried about things that go bang in the night? You should be. Not the page-bound variety, the Babadook nursery spook of infantile fears with which young Samuel (Wiseman) terrorises single mother Amelia (Davis), insisting on nightly inspections of dark spaces before creeping into her bed and robbing her of what little sleep remains.
No. It’s inner demons that can rise and destroy. Like all good monsters, they’re in the mind – and not just those of children. First-time director Kent hints as much when we learn early on that Amelia was the author of “oh, some children’s books” before she lost her husband in an accident on the way to the hospital for Samuel’s birth. Six years on, that violent tragedy and its unarticulated legacy has found darkness in Amelia – and in a terrible voracity that sucks mother and child into the cellar of unresolved trauma. Set largely in a house of blues and greys that reflect chillingly on a doomed family, Kent develops the Babadook as an amateur monster who moves with desperate crudeness before exploding into a metaphor for mind games that we ignore at our peril. Frightening in implication more than affect, The Babadook will throw its shadow over your dreams for longer than you might expect. EL
The Babadook | Directed by Jennifer Kent (Australia 2014) with Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman. Starts May 7.
Originally published in Issue #138, May 2015.