Director: Jennifer Kent
Stars: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman
4 (out of 5) Globes
The Australian haunted house fest “The Babadook” is about something far scarier than ghosts: children. Even before an angry poltergeist is rattling under wood floors and whispering its titular nonsense name, the nerves are given a good workout. Amelia (Essie Davis) is one of those genre movie single moms that feels ever so slightly (or quite aggressively) sexist, as though women can’t handle their kids by themselves. But Amelia has a couple good excuses: Her husband died in the car ride to the hospital where son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) would be born. And Samuel, now seven or so, has been acting up in a way that really does seem to come from some outside, maybe supernatural source. He’s been taking the fear of monsters under the bed to an extreme, even creating makeshift weapons out of wood if things go next level.
Already stressed, Amelia can’t handle Samuel, who seems constantly on edge, who interrupts her with false alarms during vibrator time, and whose actions border on inexplicable self-destruction. He’s been putting his life and those of other children in danger, and has been so bad at school that a flustered Amelia removes him herself. That there’s soon an actual ghost in their house, plaguing them at all times, is just icing on the cake.
“The Babadook” comes from a country where the homegrown cinema, in the last handful of years, has successfully reinvented itself. Formerly a place for grotesque comedies like “Muriel’s Wedding,” it’s now home to the world’s bleakest, most despairing cinema. (Costar Daniel Henshall, as a nice man who works with Amelia at a nursing home, was mesmerizing in the deeply unhappy serial killer saga “The Snowtown Murders.”) “The Babadook” is comparatively lighthearted. It’s a horror, and a good one, but it’s never brutal, and also darkly funny. Amelia isn’t sleeping, and the combination of fatigue and stress conspires to drive her crazy long before she’s has an even better reason to be crazy.
Writer-director Jennifer Kent arguably goes too far in tying the spectral element into her grief and madness. It makes it more than explicit; there’s no other way to read the titular beastie as anything but a materialization of her trauma. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t deliver the spooky house goods, which it does in unique fashion. Ghost movies tend to inspire prowling camera work, the cinematographer stalking after potential victims through spaces fraught with peril. Kent uses editing. There’s almost no camera movement; just precise cuts from one place to another. Remarkably that means little to no boo scares. In fact, often times her shots hold, still, as her film’s spirit slowly and casually intrudes on the frame, while the soundtrack goes nuts with unsettling noise.
“The Babadook” wants to make you jump and wants to move you. But it’s even better as a look at collective delusion. This is a film about trying to live after a loved one’s death, but it’s equally about what happens when two people spend too much time alone together, fighting a fight to which no one else is privy. There’s a few supporting characters, but they rarely stick around or come back. Most of the time it’s just Amelia and Charlie, and they would probably be crazy even without something spooky in the house. It’s almost a shame it turns into a ghost movie at all, but not quite.