|Essie Davis (top) and Noah Wiseman (bottom) in Jennifer Kent's THE BABADOOK|
Courtesy of IFC Midnight
2014, 92 minutes
Review by Joshua Handler
Essie Davis plays Amelia, a single mother whose husband died immediately before their son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), was born. Amelia is still grieving years later and the resulting depression has affected Samuel. One day, Samuel finds a pop-up book, Mister Babadook, on his shelf and he and Amelia read it before bed, only to find that its contents are extremely disturbing. Samuel begins to see Mister Babadook, the entity from the story, around the house and The Babadook begins to haunt Samuel and Amelia.
The tension increases slowly and Kent simultaneously increases the drama until the horror storyline and dramatic storyline are mixed. In terms of horror, there are no new tactics used in The Babadook, but Kent sets up the Babadook story so well through the pop-up book that we dread what's coming next. The dim, atmospheric lighting and Radoslaw Ladczuk's clever cinematography bring the terror to the next level. Very few horror movies phase me, but The Babadook had me sweating through my clothes.
The dramatic storyline of The Babadook strengthens the horror storyline. Kent's depiction of grief is realistic and (without spoiling anything), the way that she combines that with the main storyline about The Babadook is unpredictable and, quite frankly, ingenious. Few films have the emotional punch or the poignancy that this movie has. The Babadook and J.A. Bayona's wonderful The Orphanage are very much alike in that they are as disturbing and horrifying as they are subtle and moving.
Much of The Babadook's success rests on the shoulders of Davis and Wiseman who both give powerful performances. Horror movies aren't usually known for their superb acting, so to find one that is largely based around the performances is a huge surprise. Davis has appeared in a number of well-known films, but The Babadook really gives her a chance to shine. Her performance shows the slow mental decline of Amelia in heartbreaking, nerve-wracking detail and drives the movie. The very young Wiseman matches Davis with his remarkable performance as a disturbed child. The Babadook is Wiseman's feature film debut and this will no doubt be the start of the career of an actor to watch.
Overall, The Babadook is already one of the highlights of my movie-going year and marks one of the strongest debuts I've seen since Benh Zeitlin burst out with Beasts of the Southern Wild in 2012. I cannot praise The Babadook enough, as it has a seemingly generic and silly premise that literally smashes every expectation and then some. Kent has the directorial control and mastery of the horror and drama genres that most filmmakers wish they had. Go see this at New Directors/New Films now. It will be released later this year by IFC Midnight who snatched up the rights out of its critically-acclaimed debut at Sundance.