“If it’s in a word, or it’s in a book, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”
Like every good nursery rhyme, the ominous slogan of the film’s titular villain is both sinister and an absolute earworm. Like the razor sharp claws of the creature grazing down your spine, it stays with you – haunting and disturbing you.
The same can very much be said of Australian film director Jennifer Kent’s debut itself. The Babadook, released with very little fanfare, went on to become one of 2014’s most exciting and scary horror films, and propelled Kent’s career into the stratosphere. Very much a film which can affect you in a variety of different fashions, depending on who you are and where you come from, the one thing pretty much everybody agrees on is that The Babadook perfectly captures just how terrifying it can be to become a single parent. Essie Davis gives a near-infallible performance as Amelia, a mother struggling with the duelling demons of her tragic past and her unruly present (in the form of young son Samuel, performed wonderfully by child actor Noah Wiseman). We see Amelia attempting to reconcile her perfectly-understandable resentment towards her troubled child’s behaviour with her better nature, and it’s all heartbreakingly real. One of the most terrifying scenes in the movie features Amelia finally losing her cool and screaming “Why can’t you just be normal?” at Samuel, to which he responds with a piercing shriek of his own. The moment is simultaneously real and surreal, with a seemingly-normal outburst being transformed into something more insidious by our knowledge of the story’s supernatural events.
And speaking of those supernatural events, they are often brilliantly-underplayed, but in a manner that retains every ounce of their fear potential. Amelia finding shards of glass in her food, for example, could simply have been caused by Samuel’s tempestuous behaviour. On the other hand, Amelia’s attempts to rid her and Samuel of the apparently-indestructible, clingy Mister Babadook book are clearly abnormal; yet, we could understand such a phenomenon as the result of Amelia’s rapidly-declining mental state. The titular Babadook only physically appears a few times, blurred against the backdrop or shuffling at the edge of the shot. The horror genre could learn a lot from The Babadook and Jennifer Kent, a director who understands that the longer we gaze upon our fears, the less power they actually hold. Moreover, the implication that the Mister Babadook himself, a perfectly-crafted storybook villain, is only a manifestation of a folie a deux between Amelia and Samuel is fascinating. Yet, the film leaves it entirely up to the viewer to decide whether the Babadook is truly real or simply a product of mental illness, and in a way, that uncertainty is more terrifying than most straightforward horror flicks. The film’s soundtrack, composed by fellow Aussie Jed Kurzel is haunting and paranoid – a perfect accompaniment to the nightmarish fantasia unfolding upon the screen.
Since the release of The Babadook in 2014, Kent has been tipped as one of the new potential female names in cinematic horror, alongside Raw‘s Julia Ducournau and Prevenge‘s Alice Lowe, although, perhaps sensibly, she has been reserved in her choice of projects, turning down the prospect of any kind of follow-up to The Babadook and avoiding the larger film corporations in lieu of continuing to develop Australia’s indie film scene. Her second feature, The Nightingale, is expected to release internationally in 2019 after premiering at the Venice International Film Festival last year. Despite being her first film, The Babadook is startlingly-powerful, touching on the taboo subject of parents who fear their own child, as well as the suffocating reality of grief. If her subsequent projects can match the quality of her debut, there’s no doubt that Kent will be revered as one of the most ingenious horror filmmakers of the century.
Watch the trailer for The Babadook below: