'The Babadook': Film Review | Sundance 2014

The Babadook Film Still - H 2014
Matt Nettheim

The Babadook Film Still - H 2014

Bring on the illustrated book tie-in!

The oddest-sounding title at Sundance turns out to be a gruesome treat in talented Australian director Jennifer Kent's child-in-peril Midnight entry starring Essie Davis.

Cleverly playing off the classic fear of monsters lurking under the bed at night and the spookiness of certain children’s picture books, The Babadook is a distinctive domestic horror story in which the unresolved traumas of a conflicted mother and son are physicalized as a malevolent entity that threatens to consume them. Driven by a ripper of a performance from Essie Davis, Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent’s impressive first film has the handcrafted feel of a pre-digital shocker. Its style and originality should help snare niche theatrical play in addition to solid VOD prospects.

Stronger in terms of its psychological unease than its fright factor, the film may spark comparison with last year’s bracing retro surprise, The Conjuring. At the risk of giving too much away, it also messes with the most sacred of familial bonds, featuring another mother gulping down a mouthful of bad energy and turning ugly on her kid. But this is a different kind of nail-biter that has less to do with demonic possession than with the renegade power of an untamed imagination.

Amelia (Davis) has never fully recovered from the loss of her husband, Oskar (Benjamin Winspear), in a car accident almost seven years earlier as he was rushing her to hospital to give birth. To say that tragedy has put a strain on the lonely widow’s relationship with her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), is an understatement. A volatile handful who doesn’t play well with others, Samuel may fall somewhere on the behavioral-disorder spectrum or may just be acting out like any kid unsure of his mother’s love.

Kent knowingly plays with our expectations by coaxing a quietly sinister undertone out of Samuel’s tantrums, his stone-faced talk of death, his fixation with weapons and his violent outbursts. Those get him suspended from school and dropped from his play dates with the bratty daughter of Claire (Hayley McElhinney), Amelia’s unsympathetic sister. As much as he longs for closeness, more time at home with frazzled Mum is not necessarily a good thing.

The baleful force that erupts into these two damaged lives comes from a strange clothbound children’s pop-up book called The Babadook that mysteriously turns up in Samuel’s bedroom. Beautifully designed by Alexander Juhasz, the volume has pen-and-ink illustrations that evoke Edward Gorey by way of German Expressionist cinema, paired with a macabre nursery-rhyme text. (I’m sure I won’t be the only person to see this movie and immediately want a copy of the book.) Already prone to nightmares, Samuel is so alarmed by the bedtime story that Amelia abandons it halfway. But by that time it’s too late; they have already let the creature in, and attempts to dispose of the book or burn it prove futile.

With hands like Murnau’s Nosferatu, a face like one of Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things in a very pissed-off mood, and a groovy steampunk wardrobe, the Babadook is an inspired incarnation of creepy kid-lit art. But Kent is smart enough to adhere to the rule that less is more, so the intruder is seen mostly as a shadowy mass, a mobile dollop of liquid tar or a terrifying shadow, accompanied by a roach infestation. The reliance on stop-motion animation and puppets rather than CGI in creating this supernatural force is among the film’s keenest pleasures.

But the design aspects are first-rate in all departments. While Amelia and Samuel’s house looks at first glance like any innocuous old suburban Australian two-story, production designer Alex Holmes has subtly stylized the interiors for a heightened-reality effect, while cinematographer Radoslaw Ladczuk bathes the rooms in murky grays, blues and mauves. The film’s washed-out gothic color palette adds considerably to its atmosphere. The unsettling sound design is also sharp, making sparing use of Jed Kurzel’s music until panic takes hold.

While the setup will feel unhurried to the quick-thrill audience, Kent and editor Simon Njoo show maturity and trust in their material, expertly building tension through the insidious modulation from naturalistic dysfunctional family drama to all-out boogeyman terror.

One could quibble that Kent is still finding her way in terms of story sense. She spends time establishing Claire’s thorny involvement only to forget about her, as she does with a colleague of Amelia’s (Daniel Henshall), who shows a short-lived romantic interest. In other ways, however, the writer-director is crafty, notably in establishing the well-meaning old neighbor (Barbara West) and then declining to follow through on genre rules for such characters. Considering the mayhem unleashed once the Babadook takes up residence, the resolution is both unclear and a little too easy. But the script is smart in maintaining ambiguity as to whether the creature actually exists or is a product of Amelia’s battered psyche that she simply needs to acknowledge, control and even nourish.

Performances are solid, including young Wiseman’s as a child of preternatural emotional articulateness who’s vulnerable and yet not without resources when cornered. But it’s Davis who carries the movie squarely on her shoulders. It’s difficult to play a mother who struggles to love her child while keeping the audience on her side. But Amelia is a psychologically complex figure grounded in emotional reality, even when she becomes a vessel for escalating dread.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight)
Production: Causeway Films, Smoking Gun Productions, Entertainment One
Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McElhinney, Daniel Henshall, Barbara West, Benjamin Winspear

Director-screenwriter: Jennifer Kent
Producers: Kristina Ceyton, Kristian Moliere
Executive producers: Jonathan Page, Michael Tear, Jan Chapman, Jeff Harrison
Director of photography: Radoslaw Ladczuk
Production designer: Alex Holmes
Costume designer: Heather Wallace
Editor: Simon Njoo
Music: Jed Kurzel
Sales: Cinetic Media/eOne Films International
No rating, 94 minutes