film review: the babadook
When imagining horror films, one might typically think of blood, guts and a whole lot of gratuitous screaming. These are often staples of the genre, but horror can do so much more than make its audience squirm. It can draw upon real issues in our society, bringing them to life in the most confronting of ways, urging its audience to leave the cinema deep in thought. The Babadook is a film that demonstrates just how powerful horror can be as an examination of difficult themes.
The film tells the story of Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who live in the shadow of the death of Amelia’s husband Oskar – on the day of Samuel’s birth – almost seven years ago. Samuel is afraid of the monsters he sees in their house, and he develops an obsession with one particular monster that comes to life from a pop-up book: The Babadook.
At first, Amelia is frustrated with her son for being afraid of this creature, but soon his unsettled state begins to rub off on her. As their relationships with each other and those around them become more and more strained, Amelia starts to fear the Babadook just as much as her young son. What follows is a story that is profoundly moving in the subtlest of ways. It is an exploration of grief that unfolds slowly but cleverly, never spelling out its meaning but providing ample food for thought.
The Babadook is an Australian film that has already been recognised internationally: it is an official selection of Sundance 2014 and won several awards at the Gerardmer Fantastic Film Festival. Now, it is coming to local screens. It recently had its Australian premiere at the State Cinema in Hobart where Davis, herself a Tasmanian, introduced the film to an excited crowd. She told the audience that the film was made on a tight budget that included donations made via the online funding platform Kickstarter.
Despite this small budget, the film is not left wanting in any way. The production values are minimal yet effective. Most scenes take place in the home of Amelia and Samuel, a stark setting that soon takes on a life of its own. This house is shot in a way that seems so simple, yet creates a sense of haunting silence. The way in which a pop-up book is positioned as a horrifying object is another relatively simple, yet profoundly effective, filmmaking tactic. The tangible atmosphere created in this film is something that is not necessarily achievable for some filmmakers, even with a huge budget.
Essie Davis is most certainly an actress who possesses the skills to make a movie great, with or without free-flowing dollars. She is spectacular as Amelia, portraying a character who disturbs, shocks, and yet still invites empathy. She is absolutely convincing throughout every second of the film, no mean feat considering its content. She is complemented by an intelligent performance from Wiseman, who shows great emotional depth and range.
Written and directed by Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent, this film is an example of the unique stories that can come from female filmmakers and the value of diversity in the film industry. Unlike in many other offerings on our screens at this moment, The Babadook provides audiences with a complex female character who faces challenges that go far beyond the typical “finding love” or “having it all.” Horror is not necessarily a genre we might associate with interesting female characters, but this is most certainly the case in this film.
As a film, The Babadook may not exactly be a pleasurable viewing (you may like to take a friend along with you for comfort). A few moments of humour provide relief, but it is predominately a terrifying film. Not all films are there to be enjoyed, though, and this one is absolutely worth seeing.
The Babadook is screening now at the State Cinema in Hobart and opens nationally on May 22.