Knock, knock, knock. Here comes The Babadook.
Some of the scariest films of the last fifteen years have centred around mother-and-child relationships.The Others and The Orphanage both relied on the common tropes of creepy children, manic mothers and a cold blue colour palette. So it is with Australian filmThe Babadook, and like other intelligent horror-thrillers, the terror stems from the characters' psychological trauma rather than a blood-soaked white-knuckle approach. Internal horrors create an atmosphere of ambiguity and claustrophobia that defy a straightforward synopsis or explanation, but here goes. Widowed care worker Amelia lives in a dingy Australian town with her disturbed six-year old son Samuel, who resembles a consumptive and deranged young Mick Jagger.His increasingly violent antisocial behaviour towards his cousin and schoolmates (including constructing and using weapons like dart throwers) is pushing dishevelled and sexually-frustrated Amelia to distraction. When a creepy red and black picture book called Mister Babadook mysteriously turns up in their house, she has to battle Samuel's insistence that the Babadook is a real monster who has taken up residence and is out to kill his mother. And soon she herself starts to get terrifying glimpses of the book's central character, setting off a Shining-like descent into paranoia and violence.
Women dominate the film both in front of and behind the camera. Aside from Samuel, the three main characters are women - Amelia, her kindly Parkinsons-afflicted neighbour Mrs Roach, and her fractious sister Claire. The film was written and directed by Australian Jennifer Kent and is her feature film debut, although she had previously explored similar themes in her short film Monster.
Although initially we view Samuel as the hostile male threat, our perception alters over the course of the film. What's more, peripheral male characters are gentle and kind, such as the young colleague who wants to date her, and the social worker concerned with Samuel's welfare. The only sinister male presence (apart from The Babadook) is the apparition of her dead husband Oskar.
Mr Babadook himself is a slender silhouetted ghoul resembling a cross between Edward Scissorhands and Slash from Guns 'n' Roses. He appears mostly on the pages of the eponymous picture book; so don't expect any impressive special effects or The Thing-like monster moments. However his physical manifestation is handled with an effective level of creepiness.
The Babadook isn't as terrifying as some reviewers would have you believe, but it is genuinely unnerving.
The director plays extensively with noises as an expression of ambiguity. Is that the wind groaning? Are the nighttime thumps downstairs caused by the cute fluffy dog (you just know what's going to happen there)? The screen sometimes shudders or warps as if reflecting Amelia's tics, twists and turns of behaviour and emotion.
Australian film makers seem to have a way with horror: think Snowtown, Wolf Creek and going back further, the classic outback film Wake in Fright from 1971. These fall into the slasher category, with the former two at least based on true violent crimes. Other Australian horror-thrillers like The Well from 1997 (also directed and written by a woman) take the psychological horror route of The Babadook.
Overall the film is an impressive debut and a nightmare depiction of everything that can go wrong with family life - bereavement, difficult children, and fraught sibling relationships. With the possibility of a terrifying monster thrown in for good measure.
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