Dir. Jennifer Kent, 2014
A harried-looking woman picks up the phone. Silence. Then, slowly at first, a croak emerges from the other end of the line: ‘Babadook-dook-doooook!’ The audience squirms with fear and I’m locked in a rictus of anxiety, grabbing onto the chair for dear life.
If Jennifer Kent’s debut has the look and feel of a game-changer, that’s because it is. Made with a modest budget of $2 million (some of which was raised using Kickstarter), The Babadook is an old-timey horror film in the purest sense of the term. Veering sharply away from the insipid shock-movies of late, Kent relies on building a personality-led and excruciatingly tense atmosphere. Believe me, a marathon is a cakewalk compared to the physical toll of watching The Babadook.
The film’s story revolves around a fraught relationship between a, clearly mentally ill, mother and her hyperactive son. After discovering the eponymous children’s pop-up book, which incidentally would send even the hardiest adults running pell-mell for the hills, the lines between reality and illusion are blurred as both characters become convinced they’re actually being haunted by the titular ghoul.
It’s an utterly riveting performance from the two leads, Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman. The former, in particular, is a revelation in a role that, in the wrong hands, could easily have gone the cringey way of Shelly Duvall in The Shining. Her frantic but nuanced aura is matched by the dour look of the film, with its unflinching, grey palette harking back to the hyper-melancholia of an Edgar Allen Poe short story or a painting by Henry Fuseli.
The history of horror is littered with disappointing monsters, from naff zombies to questionable goblins. But my-oh-my the Babadook is not amongst these failures. Its first appearance is quite simply unforgettable and will have you nervously twitching at the bedroom curtains for weeks. But, as the age-old cliché runs, it’s what you don’t see that truly terrifies and this masterpiece delivers buckets of that je ne sais quoi too. Doesn’t sound like your cup of tea? Watch it anyway. Now.
Here’s the trailer:
WORDS: MAX FIGGETT