Halloween has arrived, and it’s a shame that the Babadook likely won’t be haunting your dreams. Yet. Hell, maybe consider yourself lucky The Babadook won’t be released until November 28th stateside. You might not be ready. When it does, the critical darling (a phrase rarely trotted out for horror fare) whose performance at film festivals this year was the cinematic equivalent of Madison Bumgarner in this year’s World Series, will be the next The Ring or Paranormal Activity, a freaky phenomenon. Except it’s much better than either of those movies, and it’s not even close.
The Australian horror film from writer-director Jennifer Kent presents a parent’s worst nightmare, and I don’t mean a blood-curdling monster, though there is that. I’m referring to a son who’s the ultimate pain in the ass, one so troublesome, crazy and annoying that he’s almost impossible to love. The Babadook showcases a realistic mother/son scenario where you can forgive a mother for wanting to give up…ON A SIX YEAR OLD BOY. Even before Mister Babadook starts crawling around the chimney and walls of her drab house, Amelia (Essie Davis) can’t sleep, because Samuel is the nightmare. Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is obsessed with monsters and magic, but not in a cute, healthy Monster Kid sort of way. He’s aggressive and violent with his peers, “the boy” who gets kicked out of school. He’s just as much a monster as the Babadook, one that has left Amelia an exhausted husk who can hardly stand up right at work, tending for senior citizens with dementia. Is there someone with a sadder existence than Amelia? Nope; Amelia can’t even bare to celebrate Sam’s birthday, because it falls on the anniversary of the death of her husband and Sam’s father, who died driving a pregnant Amelia to the hospital.
While the introduction of the Babadook elicits eye rolling on the surface, it sparks nothing but dread on screen: Sam finds a blood red pop-up book called “Mister Babadook” on his shelves and forces his mother to read it before bed (“If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of…the Babadook”). Before long, he’s in tears, another night of sleep down the drain, and the book produces a hulking, pitch black beast with a top hat and shiny, dark claws that would make Edward Scissorhands soil his shorts.
As Samuel gets worse, Amelia’s life deteriorates even further (somehow), and the Babadook takes over. Essie Davis (The Matrix Reloaded/Revolutions) delivers one of the most fearless, captivating, through-the-ringer-and-then-some performances I’ve seen in a horror movie ever, let alone this year. She’s loving, embarrassed, distraught, exhausted, malevolent, murderous and insane, many times in the same scene. Essie’s work is right there with Alexandra Essoe’s feral performance in Starry Eyes, two carnal creations that would make the immortal Isabelle Adjani proud.
Kent displays stunning and admirable restraint in the amount she shows the Babadook, making it even scarier when we actually do. Plus, I don’t know if I could’ve handled more of the monster. Not since I was a ten year old watching The Exorcist was I more tempted to just close my eyes, knowing it’d be better for my long term health. But I didn’t want to miss a frame of this thrilling freakshow.
I’m struggling to come up with a creepier creature than the Babadook, a testament to the movie’s practical FX and sound wizardry. If Essie Davis is the film’s MVP, its sound is the glue that makes everything around it better. The sound production, whether it’s the beast’s unnerving skittering movements, its unearthly booming voice, or its clinking claws (holy snikt), inspiring greater depths of fear.
While it never should be in doubt, movies like The Babadook prove horror’s legitimacy even while Ouija gives credence to the genre’s unfair scorn and derision (and becomes a box office success anyways). If there’s any justice, The Babadook will be scaring the crap out of a large mainstream audience come Thanksgiving time. Along with Starry Eyes and Housebound, The Babadook towers over the rest of the horror landscape in 2014 and beyond.
The Babadook arrives On Demand and in limited release on November 28th.