There’s a reason that a large number of great filmmakers start out doing horror – it’s a form of storytelling that doesn’t require big budgets, just skill in constructing terror and suspense. Making her feature film debut, writer-director Jennifer Kent has crafted a terrifying picture, one that shuns the jump scares and chooses an escalating dread that becomes all consuming. A masterful display of filmmaking, The Babadook is among the finest horror films of the past 10 years.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother raising her 6-year old son Samuel. Born the same day his father was killed in a car wreck, Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is an awkward child. He can’t get along socially with any children, he’s been expelled from school and doesn’t get along with his cousin. He lives in a constant fear of monsters, making weapons to fight the monsters when the time comes. One evening, Amelia reads Samuel a bedtime story from a book she’d never seen before, Mister Babadook. Disgusted by the material in the book, Amelia stashes the book away. Then the book reappears. Soon, Amelia is weighed down by the stresses of caring for an outsider child, the stresses at work, and her own personal grief. Are Amelia and Samuel trapped in a house with monsters or they imagined? If they’re imagined, who is imagining them?
I’m going to tread lightly as to not give much away, but Kent’s film is astounding at creating a sense of unease from the beginning, knowing how to slowly escalate the tension. But if you confuse being startled with being scared, this film isn’t for you. It’s a triumph of set design, cinematography, sound design, pacing, and editing. It’s hard to believe that a film constructed with such precision on so many levels was the work of a first-time director. Jennifer Kent will be a name to keep an eye on.
As the family wrecked with terror, Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman give equally compelling performances. Each character has to through their own kind of transformation, and each handle it remarkably well. The fictional mother and child play off each other with a familiarity that seems real, and that helps them bring the film’s robust sense of humor to the surface.
Now in theaters in limited release and available for VOD rental, The Babadook is a blistering debut from a promising new talent. It’s not a film that’s graded on a curve because it’s a horror flick, it’s genuinely a well-crafted piece of work. And once you’ve encountered The Babadook, you won’t forget it.