There is one kind of film the Australian industry certainly doesn't have in abundance: films we could call Horror Classics. Every major film industry in the world has at least a handful, but we barely have that. Sure, there's 'Wolf Creek' (2005) and a bevy of Ozploitation films, but none are the kinds of films struck from a similar mould to 'The Shining', 'The Exorcist' or 'The Innocents'. Arguably, the only one is Peter Weir's masterpiece 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' (1975), and that's hardly a horror film in the conventional sense. After a stellar premiere at Sundance, one Aussie horror film has arrived that might just earn itself, if not the title of a Horror Classic, then certainly something very close. With her first feature film 'The Babadook', writer and director Jennifer Kent has created something very unusual, very special and very unnerving.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mum working in a nursing home. She lost her husband the night her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) was born, and she's never been able to deal with her grief. Together, they live in an old suburban house that helps fuel seven-year-old Samuel's fertile mind for monsters and dangers around every corner, resulting in Samuel developing serious behavioural problems that Amelia can't find a way to control. One evening, Samuel picks a mysterious book for bedtime reading she's never seen before: a frightening pop-up book about a horrific figure called Mister Babadook. Samuel starts to see him everywhere, and Amelia assumes this is another of his games... until she begins to see a strange and frighteningly familiar figure out of the corner of her eye.
'The Babadook' is a horror film in the classical sense: a symphony of atmosphere and surreal imagery. We've become so used to mindless carnage that it's refreshing to come across a film that uses the genre in the manner it was conceived - taking a real human issue and manifesting it in the form of an antagonistic figure that not only causes external harm but can be faced directly. What Kent has chosen to tackle is a rich psychological scenario. In Amelia, we have not only a woman riddled with grief, but a resentment for her demanding child she tries very hard to ignore, and these manifest in one of the more nightmarish figures we've seen on screen in a while. 'The Babadook' is a dark fairy tale or fable, and everything about the execution of the film is calibrated to sell this idea. The production design conjures up a world of dark corners and creaking doors, an antique house populated by antique figures plonked in the middle of a modern suburban setting. The camera moves with an almost serpentine quality, adopting unusual framing and rhythm to enhance the tension. Even Mister Babadook himself feels like an old-world creation, executed on screen using the principles of stop-motion. Kent has an extensive knowledge and passion for European cinema, and there's definitely a quality of that to the film, not just in its technical work but in the screenplay. It's tight and often pretty brutal, taking the characters in directions most filmmakers would balk at. The relationship between mother and son is wonderfully unusual, so often with one being the antagonist for the other. It makes the drama incredibly potent, and when the film fully embraces the horror in the final act, it adds to the impact of it by being enacted and inflicted on characters we've come to relate to. That final act is a rollercoaster of intelligent and fearless horror, and had me (a hardened horror fan) on the edge of my seat.
'The Babadook' is a horror film in the classical sense: a symphony of atmosphere and surreal imagery.
Central to the success of the film is the performance from Essie Davis, one of our more underrated talents. Amelia is put through the emotional and physical wringer, and Davis jumps head-first into the role without showing the slightest bit of fear. She also pitches her performance to perfectly match Kent's visual style. It's that little bit bigger, that little bit heightened, not dissimilar to Shelley Duvall's performance in 'The Shining' (1980). She's not in a naturalistic drama, she's in an operatic horror film, and she knows it. She also beautifully handles the often sudden transitions from fragile Amelia to something far more frightening, calling into question (as all great horror should) whether Mister Babadook is really there, or if he might be an excuse for Amelia's psychological collapse. Just as impressive is Noah Wiseman as Samuel. This kid is seven years old and doesn't bat an eyelid at the violence and violent concepts put in his way. Samuel is a tragically volatile creature full of some pretty wicked one-liners, and Wiseman gives a performance that has to be seen to be believed. It's one of the best child performances in ages, and his chemistry with Davis is an absolute delight.
To give you any clues as to where 'The Babadook' leads you would be to ruin the wicked pleasure of discovering for yourself, but it's definitely one of the more unexpected and insightful endings a horror film has offered us. Jennifer Kent has delivered both a cracking first feature and a brutal horror film with 'The Babadook', one that ticks all the right boxes. It has characters you can connect with, wickedly black humour, genuine scares and creepy atmosphere. Whether we have that rarest of beasts on our hands - an Australian Horror Classic - it might be too early to tell. It's not a flawless film, but it's certainly the closest candidate in a while. There are a lot of great Australian films out at the moment that should be seen, and you can now add this one to the list. 'The Babadook' returns horror to where it should be: hidden in the shadows and playing with our minds.