Fantastic Fest 2014: The Babadook

Tyro helmer Jennifer Kent conjures disturbing spook story

Be vigilant against The Babadook. Once you let him in, he will never leave. “If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of The Babadook,” reads weary Amelia (Essie Davis) to her frightened son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) from a book that has mysteriously appeared in the young boy’s bedroom.

Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent makes a stunningly assured feature filmmaking debut with this unnerving thriller. It’s more a psychological horror tale than a blood-and-guts outing, although the filmmaker doesn’t stint on either score. The Babadook owes a clear debt to films like The Exorcist in which demon children are not to be taken lightly.

At the outset of the film, we find single mom Amelia exhausted due to the sleeplessness of near-7-year-old Samuel who fears monsters that he believes to be hiding in closets and under the bed. Samuel may not yet be a demon child, but he is unquestionably a problem child. In order to slay monsters, he has concocted a lethal dart thrower, which has gotten him expelled from school. Other children find him weird and unlikable, and Amelia has a tendency to recoil from her son’s touch. Also, the trauma of her husband’s sudden and violent death still haunts Amelia.

Things escalate when Mister Babadook, an ominous children’s pop-up book, mysteriously appears in Samuel’s bedroom, and warns against a dark and evil creature who cannot be gotten rid of once he’s been allowed in to one’s home. The image of The Babadook is primitive yet bone-rattling: a sturdy, all-black silhouette appears as if part scarecrow/part tombstone, and with extended whiskers or claws attached above and below these talons seem sharper and sootier than Freddy Krueger’s ever were; a top hat lends the image a perverse magisterial touch. He knocks three times: “Baba dook-dook-dook.” Despite tearing up the book and leaving it in the trash, Amelia finds it again in her son’s room pasted together and more threatening than before. Clearly, they’re being stalked.

Amelia grows more exasperated and exhausted by the day. She resorts to tranquilizing her son so she can get some sleep. But still, the Babadook knocks. Samuel keeps squalling about not wanting his mother to die, but is he issuing a threat or expressing genuine fear? Essie Davis delivers a brilliant performance, notching distinct levels of fatigue and disorientation that grow ever more nuanced. Her skillful display somewhat makes up for the uneven performance Noah Wiseman, distracting us child actor’s limited range.

The crisp imagery of The Babadook creates a true sense of menace amid the banality. Mothers who fear their offspring also strikes at a very primal level of mythic storytelling. Vigilance is the only means of protection against the creature from the id. Screw Heisenberg: It is The Bababook who knocks.

The Babadook screens again Monday, Sept. 22, 2:15pm.

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More The Babadook
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Bedtime Stories That Bite Back
Jennifer Kent discusses horror debut The Babadook

Marc Savlov, Dec. 5, 2014

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