The Babadook (2014)
If It Follows is (so far) the best horror film of this year, then The Babadook is the best horror film of last year, and one that I most certainly regret having missed for as long as I did. Writer/director Jennifer Kent takes a fairly stock supernatural horror plot -- a young boy's storybook invites a monster into a suburban home -- and uses it to weave a truly compelling tale of grief at the loss of a loved one, while still remembering to bring the scares in a big way despite having few special effects at her disposal. This is old-school horror at its best.
You see, the titular monster isn't the real enemy of The Babadook. That would instead be the jumbled bag of emotions and problems faced by the film's heroine, the widowed mother Amelia Vannick. Amelia's life has been going off the rails for the last six years, ever since her husband Oskar died in a car wreck while taking her to the hospital to deliver her baby. She supports herself and her son working as a nurse at a retirement home, struggling to make ends meet. Her baby, Samuel, is now a six-year-old boy who's obsessed with monsters he thinks are lurking in every shadow, and has just been kicked out of school for bringing a homemade crossbow to class. And neither she nor her son have quite gotten over the death of Oskar. Amelia is stressed out and clearly just about to lose it, so when Samuel not only tells her that the monster from a macabre pop-up book is real and trying to get him, but starts lashing out at anybody who tells him otherwise, she finally does just that.
This is as much a character piece as it is a horror film, and a huge part of that can be credited to the film's two stars, Essie Davis as Amelia and young Noah Wiseman as Samuel. Davis looks appropriately unglamorous and worn down in a way that American horror films rarely let their characters be (this film is Australian, for the record), but looks aren't everything, and Davis delivers a true knockout performance. She pulls off a wide range of emotions as Amelia goes to depths that I won't dare spoil, convincing me of every beat her character went through. With just the look on her face, I was convinced of the crisis she was facing, both with the monster and with her "mundane" life, more effectively than any line of dialogue possibly could. Wiseman's Samuel, meanwhile, was one of the most refreshingly realistic kids I've ever seen in a horror film. When he first meets the monster, his first reaction isn't the curiosity we get from way too many "horror kids" ripping off Carol Anne from Poltergeist. No, he reacts the same way we all reacted to the monsters we thought were under our beds and in our closets -- he runs screaming to his mum (not mom, because again, this is Australia, mate) and starts making hare-brained schemes to kill the monster with catapults, crossbows, and tripwires. "I want to play!" "No, screw that, I'm hiding under my blankets!"
As soon becomes obvious, it turns out that the bogeyman is, of course, real, but it's a lot more than just a creature that goes bump in the night. While the origin of the Babadook is never stated outright, implications are drawn throughout the film that it's either the malicious spirit of the late Oskar, Amelia's husband and Samuel's father, or (more likely) a manifestation of Amelia and Samuel's grief at their loss. On more than one occasion, we see the Babadook take the form of Oskar to speak to Amelia and try to tempt her into "letting him in", and even before it really enters the film in a big way, Amelia's life is defined by the loss of her husband, in the form of both her grief and her perilous financial situation, which this film wisely shows us in the form of the Vannicks' weathered house (they eat bland porridge and still have an old cathode-ray tube TV) rather than telling us in the form of boring monologues about bills that need to be paid. Amelia resents her increasingly troubled son, seeing in him her own failings as a mother, and for her, his ranting about a monster in the house trying to kill them is just one more problem that she doesn't need. When they're at a birthday party for a friend of Samuel's, Amelia yells at her well-to-do neighbors making flippant remarks about helping "disadvantaged folks" while discussing how their biggest problems involve not having the time to go to the gym. It was this scene, more than anything involving the monster, that stuck out in my head when I got to writing this review, as it encapsulated everything that this film was really about. Until the supernatural occurrences get so overt that they're impossible to dismiss, you can't be certain if the Babadook is real, or just a sign of Amelia finally losing it, unable to cope with all the problems in her life. This is a film that, even without the supernatural horror elements, still would've worked as a downbeat domestic drama about a single mother struggling to make ends meet.
But this isn't a domestic drama, it's a horror film, and fortunately, Jennifer Kent is just as capable as a director as she is a screenwriter. Much like her fellow Aussie James Wan did with The Conjuring, Kent imbues this film with a very vintage aesthetic, in both the set design and with its slow burn and buildup to the big scares in the finale. We rarely see the Babadook in full form, as even during the third act, most of it is often cloaked in shadows; all we see is a figure in an old-fashioned top hat and a trench coat with very big claws. The pop-up book that Amelia and Samuel read (which kicks off the plot) gives a lot of big hints as to how the third act is going to play out, but rather than spoiling anything, it helps build suspense as you start to realize what's happening towards the end. I genuinely feared for the lives of Amelia and Samuel, as after everything that happened, I was not sure if they were going to make it out in one piece, especially as their fate seemed to be foretold by that damn book. (Did they survive? I ain't tellin'.) This movie is not about big jump scares, even if it does have a few of those, but rather, it's about what you don't see, what's lurking just out of sight making those terrible noises.
Score: 5 out of 5
The Babadook is one of the most deeply disturbing tales I've ever seen, in both its monster and in a human story that fearlessly ventures into some very dark places. It's easily one of the best horror films of any kind to come out in the last few years, with Jennifer Kent having a bright future ahead of her as a horror filmmaker. Don't overlook it.