Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother plagued by the violent death of her husband. Meanwhile, her son has a fear of a monster lurking in the house. It's not long before Amelia is frightened too, when discovers a sinister presence all around her.
SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: A nightmare of grief and single motherhood, The Babadook takes some unsettling, intensely gratifying risks with a horror formula familiar from films like The Others, The Orphanage, and the movie that scared me most as a kid, The Changeling. Amelia (Essie Davis) lives alone with her six-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) in the house she shared with her husband until a car accident took his life—as he was driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth.
Davis is terrific in a demanding role
That convergence of birth and death still boggles Amelia, a nurse at an old age home, who appears not to have slept since the night she lost a husband and gained a son. Her manner is mild but eerily detached; she’s the woman whose calmly zonked expression might send you a couple seats down on the bus.
Not so Samuel, a holy terror in short pants. (I saw The Babadook right after Boyhood, and as a result my sudden urge to procreate was roundly mocked, spun around, and squashed.) Samuel is a junior magician who clings to his mother, to her sharp annoyance. Much of the power and originality of Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent’s film derives from the way Kent is able to capture the sense of a relationship gone off—a mother suffocated by her son’s needs and a little boy warped by the lack of emotional oxygen in the house. The direction is plain and demonstrative, emphasising the isolation and confinement of the characters in a world (and specifically a home) that seems to have turned against them.
If each one is able to drift (or in Samuel’s case, swashbuckle and scream) through the day, the bad stuff flourishes at night. When Samuel presents something called 'Mr. Babadook" as his bedtime story of choice, Amelia finds what appears to be a homemade pop-up book filled with images of a Nosferatu-like monster threatening death and destruction to all who unleash him. Samuel, naturally, goes berserk, and his manic, violent behavior pushes Amelia into an exhausted psychosis. The outside world offers little support, beyond some powerful sedatives for Samuel, which appear to have the effect of transferring his terrors to his mum.
It’s at this point that The Babadook takes its most fascinating turn, as the defeated Amelia, propped up in front of scary television movies, turns murderous, just as the Babadook said she would. Kent creates an atmosphere of maternal rage and antipathy more terrifying than the well-crafted but more familiar images of wayward furniture and shadows that swell in the night. Davis is terrific in a demanding role, sliding easily from a source of sympathy to a source of profound dread.
As Amelia becomes a threat to her son (and their poor dog), the house begins to seethe. In less skilled hands the scenario could have easily slid into camp, and some of the more outrageous moments in The Babadook suggest it’s a boundary that interests Kent. A long, emetic climax has shades of The Exorcist, and indeed a ghost requires purging. True to its word, The Babadook, however, is here to stay, an idea with which the rest of us should be glad to make peace.