Championed by Rosie Fletcher, editor of Total Film, The Babadook was the big discovery of this year’s Film 4 FrightFest. Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, it is an oppressive Australian drama that uses a children’s story to talk about the monsters that lurk in the dark corners of the mind.
Essie Davis gives a masterful performance as Amelia, the downtrodden mother who lost her husband in a car crash the day she gave birth to their son. Sam (Noah Wiseman) is a troubled, anxious young boy dangerously obsessed with fighting monsters. One night, Sam finds a mysterious book on a shelf in his bedroom. Puzzled, Amelia reads him the story of The Babadook, which becomes increasingly sinister and threatening as they turn the pages. Soon, it seems that by opening the book they have indeed invited a dark force into their house.
Skilfully directed, the film is perfectly poised between real and unreal and manages to be both emotionally rich and disturbingly creepy, remaining ambiguous to the end. The Babadook is a great new monster, both childish and chilling with its striking silhouette and unnerving cry. Under its spell, roles shift to reveal that things may not be as straightforward as they had first appeared.
The relationship between mother and son is beautifully complex and poignant, and Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman are compelling to watch, shifting between various moods with nuance and conviction. Initially agitated and irritating, Sam becomes sweet and brave when Amelia has to confront the monster. And while at first he appeared to have behavioural problems that isolated him from other children, it soon looks like he may understand the situation much more lucidly than the adults around him.
Confirming the subtlety and profound individuality of her approach, Kent refuses to follow conventions and ends her film in an entirely unexpected and heart-breakingly resonant manner. As the book says, once the Babadook is in, you can never get rid of it. But you can learn to live with it.
Watch the trailer: