The opening shot of ‘The Babadook’ tells you everything you need to know. Within a single image, it conveys the emotions, anxieties, and fears that you will be well acquainted with over the next 98 minutes. It conveys a sense of purpose. It makes you feel that this is a special film. That it is perfectly calibrated. That the person who put this thing together was in full control and knew exactly what they were doing. And when the film is over and you’re surfing the interwebz, you’re astonished to realize that it was made by a first time filmmaker. That filmmaker is Jennifer Kent. This is a name you will want to remember.
If I appear late to this party, well, I am, and it is because the movie only opened in Canada last week (limited release here in Toronto); it opened in the US and Europe late last year.
A single mother raises her son following the death of her husband. They share a big elegantly dreary Australian house. The school’s principal sends the kid home for bringing homemade weapons to protect himself from these imaginary monsters. And if the boy’s mom thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse, she opens the world’s creepiest pop-up book which mystifyingly occupied a spot in their home library. “You can’t get rid of The Babadook” the book warns.
This is fairly well travelled territory. You know it. I know it. Ms. Kent knows it. But, Ms. Kent, I suspect, has had enough of the cheap jump scenes employed by trite horror films about wronged mothers and possessed children. Here, it’s done with ostensible innovation – practical effects that have an almost otherworldly quality, evocatively bleak production design, irreproachably textured sound design, canted camera angles, quick razor-sharp editing, and her ability to intensify and protract tension.
Yes, The Babadook with its charcoal overcoat and top hat, dispiritingly long slender Nosferatu-esque fingers, and that throatily voice is indeed a terrifying creation. But even more terrifying is what The Babadook represents. Remove The Babadook, and what you’re left with is a psychological study about the destructive power of shared post-trauma.
‘The Babadook’ has a surprising amount of emotion for a film in this genre, and that is mostly thanks to the matched pair of terrific performances from both Essie Davis, and Noah Wiseman. It takes a lot to scare me. I have seen a lot of movies. I feel as though I know all the tricks. And yet, ‘The Babadook’ genuinely terrified me. Holy. ‘The Babadook’ is one of strongest debut features in a long time, in any genre. Alongside ‘The Conjuring’, ‘The Babadook’ is the finest horror film of this decade. Brace yourself. QED.