From Rosemary’s Baby to Mama, horror has a long history of exploring motherhood. The latest example is The Babadook, an Australian chiller about a struggling widow (Essie Davis) and her troubled child (Noah Wiseman), whose fear of monsters turns into a reality thanks to the titular pop-up book; a kids’ book scary enough to make Roald Dahl squirm.
Cementing the horror genre’s place as fertile ground for women filmmakers and feminism, The Babadook is the debut feature of writer/director Jennifer Kent, who crafts this creepy little movie with a level of care abandoned by Hollywood’s hack haunted houses and found-footage folly.
The monochromatic picture-book palette lends The Babadook a haunting atmosphere, enhanced by creepily crisp sound, lighting and editing. The monster itself is as elusive as is this kind of restraint in modern horror; Kent combines stop-motion animation with The League of Gentlemen‘s Papa Lazarou to make the Babadook an eerily familiar and mechanical wardrobe-dweller, who serves as a metaphor in the classic monster tradition.
This is where The Babadook surpasses its generic bump-in-the-night territory; it taps into fear, grief and loneliness, all embodied by the nightmarish monster. Here, Davis’ performance jumps from the screen as if in a pop-up book, jolting between sad and scary with every turn of the page. It’s like watching a particularly scary episode of Outnumbered where the awful mum finally loses it.
Wiseman is perfectly cast as the annoying child, his face contorting with growing fear. The mother-son relationship sits somewhere between We Need to Talk About Kevin and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, with improvised booby traps and insomniac paranoia placing us firmly in an Australian Elm Street.
Problems do pop-up in The Babadook, which gets less scary as it goes along and can’t really decide where to end. But it stands out from its contemporaries with strong characters, spooky atmosphere and bogeyman imagery of which Freddy Krueger would be proud.