I didn’t quite know what to make of “The Babadook” when I first saw it and decided it was best to sleep on it, which could be seen as a fairly damning indictment of its potency as a horror film. But I have to confess, it wasn’t the best night’s sleep I ever had and not because the slightest noise had me imagining a book-born boogeyman had infiltrated my house. No, the true horror of “The Babadook” is so much more mundane than a mere fantastical creature and all the more potent for it.
It tells the story of a widowed single mother, still damaged and numb from the events which claimed her husband’s life and struggling to raise her troubled seven year old son. As her son’s behaviour worsens and his fear of a monster lurking within the pages of a book intensifies, she is forced to confront the sinister darkness plaguing their lives.
This is a very different kind of horror film from the glutinous diet of cynically edited jump scares, gory one-upmanship and torture porn which has dominated the genre for the past few years. This is a gritty, grim exercise in slow-burning paranoia and fear with a genuinely new and fascinating creation at its centre. There’s no flashiness here, just a dreamily ambient and disturbing atmosphere which tightens its grip almost imperceptibly on you as the film unfolds until you reach the finale white-knuckled and deeply unsettled.
What makes it so effective is the depth of the narrative and the themes explored by the movie. Yes, it’s about a supernatural monster terrorising a mother and her son but look again and you’ll see a savagely honest exploration of what it’s like to raise a child who is troubled or who has special needs. The initial sympathy of those around you leeching away to reveal their own discomfort and their eventual withdrawal or avoidance; the sense of alienation and isolation as the world carries on around you, never pausing for a moment to really empathise with the challenges you face and the heart-breaking stress and worry that comes from being the only one who must soldier on despite the slings and arrows of the outrageous misfortune because you’re the only one who doesn’t have a choice.
All of this emotional subtext is brought to screen by a pair of powerful performances from Essie Davis as Amelia and Daniel Henshall as Robbie. Much of the film, as befits their social isolation, rest on their shoulders and their reactions to the threats – real and imagined – within their home but they never once disappoint. There’s a raw honesty to their performances and a palpable parent-child bond between them. Credit too to the casting, this is a grubby, lived in world devoid of hollow pretty people. From the stuffy headmaster to the endearing elderly neighbour suffering from Parkinson’s even the smallest characters feel fully fleshed out and genuine.
The production design is tremendous, with The Babadook seeming like the demonic ghost of The League Of Gentlemen’s Papa Lazarou crossed with elements of Slender Man. Although there are no contrived scares, there are plenty of chilling and unsettling moments and the deceptively innocent pop-up book ‘Mister Babadook’ is truly terrifying. That this film can convey so much horror with simple paper cut outs gives you an idea of just how good the writing, direction, performances and design truly are. In fact, if the film has a flaw at all, it’s that it chooses on a couple of occasions to give us too good a glimpse of The Babadook and the creature, for all its malevolence, feels somewhat reduced once you’ve seen his face.
With a fresh and unexpected denouement, the film takes the courageous step of leaving us without a neat and tidy resolution, instead remaining fiercely loyal to the quirky and sinister set of rules it established for itself. It didn’t give me a sleepless night – at least not in the way I was expecting – but there’s no denying its power as a psychological drama and a superbly realised story.