Somewhere deep inside Jennifer Kent, writer and director of The Babadook, there must lie a playful cheekiness. She has set out to direct a very gripping horror movie, which plays like Monsters Inc. (2001) from Hell, but underlines it with a touch of comedy, with impossible irregularities, almost as if it’s ready to burst into laughter, but can’t, because it knows it has to be frightening. What’s wonderful about this is that it works, almost too well.
I am not very fond of supernatural horror movies. I think it’s got something to do with my imagination. It’s not so much that I cower in fear while sitting through a movie about ghosts, it’s more me suffering the aftereffects by having to peer around the door when I enter my bedroom, or being unable to stare down a dark corridor, or looking at a window and expecting to see a grotesque face looking back. The tricks of the mind. They make daily life very difficult.
The Babadook is a scary movie that churns a lot of tricks, but it is pleasant in the way it doesn’t shock us into submission. Considerate, even. It is calm and collected, which sometimes can be even more shocking. It’s one of those horror movies that draws our gaze to the background — to an open door, to a dark corridor, to a window. More often than not, the background is where all the action is (think Halloween ). What happens in the fore is only distraction. And many of us have become so accustomed to horror movies that we keep expecting figures and apparitions to take shape in the background; when the scene passes without an apparition, we realise we’ve been clutching the armrest way too tight. We live in fearful expectation.
The Babadook takes place in an unnamed city in Australia. Amelia (Essie Davis) works at the local retirement home and is none too pleased with her role. Her husband died in a car crash before the birth of their son, Samuel, and now she lives with Samuel (Noah Wiseman, adorable), who’s about 6, in one of those staple scary movie houses that is large, has many bedrooms, a staircase that leads to blackness at either end, and a basement. It’s always either a basement or an attic. I think horror houses flip a coin to decide which. Those that can’t be bothered have both. My brother made an interesting point: A movie like The Babadook cannot work in a studio apartment.
Sam is convinced there’s a monster in the house. He constructs rudimentary weapons in case of all-out war (the best of which is a wooden haversack that springs a cricket ball from a catapult-like arm). Amelia of course has none of it, and confides her domestic troubles in her sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney), who has noticed an escalation in Sam’s hostile behaviour. After Sam pushes his cousin off the balcony of her treehouse one day, Claire is convinced Sam is the son of Satan, and very wisely leaves her sister to her own devices.
The real trouble begins when Sam pulls a mysterious book off his shelf for bedtime reading. The book, which Amelia has never seen before, is entitled “Mr. Babadook” and is the movie’s most inspired and, dare I say it, pretty prop. In it is a sickly rhyme that Mother Goose must have rejected on many occasions, and popup images of a ghastly wraith blanketing kids in their beds. Shudder.
Now things get bad. Doors open themselves, figures appear, there are strange knocks on the front door, Amelia receives an eerie telephone call (how ghosts in movies always manage to use the telephone effectively is a mystery as confounding as the ghosts themselves). You know the drill. But because Amelia and Sam are written as strong characters and are played bravely by Davis and Wiseman, their bond upstages the spooky stuff and elevates the movie from a low-rung scarefest to a three-dimensional experience. There’s actually a moving story here, one of familial love: Mums and sons can face any danger so long as they remain vigilant and together. This is something we know, and Mister Babadook has to learn.
I return to the cheekiness I mentioned at the start of this review. Yes, The Babadook does chill your spine, but consider the whimsy of its final act. It would have drifted completely into comedy had it not been so intelligently written and refreshing. It makes the whole movie click. Of course I will be kind and not tell you what happens. All I will say is that there might be a sequel, and Mister Babadook might look to Fido the zombie for help.
Best Moment | When Mister Babadook comes down the chimney and chases a paralysed Amelia.
Worst Moment | The godawful acting by one of Claire’s gym-going friends.