Oh boy, what an absolutely terrifying movie. This one truly rattled me. It’s incredible filmmaking that can eek unease, dread, and terror out of even the most mundane moments.
The film can be described in a number of ways all of which would be technically accurate. Amelia, played by Essie Davis, is a single mother trying to get a good nights sleep despite her unruly son. Or… Amelia is a woman haunted by the death of her husband and that trauma manifests in the form of a monster from a story book. Or… Amelia and her son are traumatized by a malicious demon in fancy dress clothes. Or… An Australian filmmaker tortures the audience with a truly scary film for an hour and a half. All fo these are equally accurate.
Amelia and her son Samuel are struggling. Amelia can’t sleep. She also can’t embrace her son fully. Her husband died on the way to the hospital while she was in labor. This trauma haunts her to this day and causes a chasm between her and her son. Meanwhile, Samuel has a kind of arrested development. He believes in monsters and crafts makeshift weapons to protect his mom from the monsters he believes are at their door. One night before bed, Samuel takes a book off the shelf. It’s a book Amelia has never seen before. It’s called Mister Babadook. It turns out to be horrifying. Samuel comes to believe that Mister Babadook is coming to get them. As time passes, Amelia begins to believe it too.
The filmmaking here is unbelievable. It borrows a page from The Exorcist in that it uses editing and sound design in an almost violent way. Smash cuts to loud settings are incorporated throughout the first half to create jolts that never let the audience relax. Quick cuts to odd camera angles keeps the audience on edge and off balance. Rapid editing that builds to a static shot gets the heart rate up then abandons us in a hard long shot. It’s all brilliant work. One of the most well executed segments takes place at a park. Amelia is talking to her sister while Samuel plays on the swings. Samuel shouts about climbing higher. Amelia is distracted by her conversation. The film cuts between the conversation and Samuel climbing higher as the conversation becomes more intense and Samuel gets higher, the editing becomes more rapid. Faster and faster cuts that culminate in a wide shot of Samuel on the top of the swings. Silence. Smash cut to Samuel screaming in the backseat of the car. This rapid editing, combined with the building conversation, then the silence, then the smash cut to the screaming child incites fear and confusion. What happened between the swings and the car? We don’t know, but we’re uncomfortable with the implications. It’s not an inherently scary scene, but through a smart director and a skilled editor, it becomes deeply unsettling.
The design of The Babadook is instantly iconic. It is a dark shadowy figure that has long knife-life fingers an overcoat and a top hat. It is horrifying in the best way possible. The book from which The Babadook springs is vividly realized. It is scary to look at all on its own. Beautiful work. You just have to see it to fully appreciate it. Amelia’s house is perfectly created. It has a gray and black color palette that feels realistic for the most part, until the lights go out and the shadows get longer and those colors take on a heightened aesthetic. It is scary and ominous without having to try.
Essie Davis as Amelia and Noah Wiseman as Samuel are an incredible pair. Samuel is a very weird boy, but his oddities clearly come from a challenging upbringing. Wiseman manages to convey a lot and create a vividly realized character. Essie Davis should’ve been nominated for an Oscar for this. She explodes off the screen whether she is lost in an exhausted daze or berated her child like a possessed monster. It’s a great performance. She runs an emotional marathon in this movie, and definitely comes out the winner.
Now, is The Babadook real, or is it just a figment of Amelia’s beleaguered and traumatized mind? Well, the film doesn’t offer an easy answer to that question. It is shot from Amelia’s perspective. We see the world the way she does as such we are stuck with an extremely unreliable narrator. This is actually a brilliant twist on the genre. Early on only Samuel can see The Babadook. Amelia can’t see it, and doesn’t believe him. Usually, these movies followed the POV of the one who can see the monsters and the nonbelievers are relegated to background parts. This film gives us this perspective we don’t usually get. As the movie progresses and Amelia goes longer without sleep, her perspective begins slipping. So, is The Babadook real? I don’t honestly think it matters. It is real to her. She experiences something real to her. It could just be the manifestation of her trauma. It could be c oping mechanism her brain has crafted to deal with her resentment toward her son. It could be a demon that has sacked their lives. What matters is that Amelia can’t bear to touch her son at the start of the film and holds him loving at the end. The facts of the case are less important than the story being told. Also that ambiguity really helps the film stick to the walls of your brain like peanut butter on the roof of your mouth. It stays with you.
If you like your horror, intellectual, abstract, and challenging, then this is the movie for you. If you like your horror intense and relentless, this is also the movie for you. If you like easy answers or are looking for an easy movie to watch this movie is not going to go well for you. that’s not a criticism. Sometimes I need an easy to watch movie with a few jump scares and a neat conclusion. This is the opposite if that.
I was blown away by this movie. It is challenging, and vividly realized. Beautifully shot, intensely edited, and well acted, this movie deserves its place among the best horror movies of all time. It’s scary and effective as a drama. Check it out this Halloween. It’s awesome.
My cup of tea for sure. A