I haven’t had a midnight horror movie unsettle me this much at a film festival since I saw the original Japanese Ju-On: The Grudge over a decade ago.
The movie follows the insomnia fueled struggles of a single mother (played masterfully and subtly by Aussie actress Essie Davis) and her eccentric 6 year old son Samuel, whom I assume was played by an animatronic puppet they nicknamed Noah Wiseman, because I refuse to believe a real live 6 year old can be that good of a performer. The crazy/cute other worldly expressions Noah makes throughout the movie are a special effect all on their own.
Samuel is a problem child, but the best kind of problem child (as long as you’re not the one having to raise him) because he’s obsessed with magic tricks, and building hand made Goonies-style weaponry for the monster war he is sure is on the horizon. The problem is the weapons he builds are not child’s play. He is skilled at creating very real cross-bows, backpack worn catapults, etc… and enjoys taking them to show and tell at school (ut oh). Probably not a great idea, but still makes him the coolest kid in school in my book.
Samuel and his mother Amelia are creations right out of an early Tim Burton short. The sleep deprivation they both suffer due to Samuel’s fear of nighttime takes a toll on them emotionally and physically. Dark red eyelids and pale complexions give them and the house set around them a very goth fantasy vibe. It’s not overdone or in your face though. It’s just little touches here and there in the makeup design and set design that make everything just a little dour and ripe for the ensuing supernatural chaos that unfolds. Also, it might seem from the setup that this movie is heading toward a “it was all a dream” or “it was all in their heads” cop-out… but thankfully the movie never takes any kind of twist ending BS path. I adore it for that. What’s real is real, and it’s really scary.
Things take a severe turn for the worse when Samuel discovers a disturbing pop-up book in his room that his mother doesn't recall buying for him called “The Babadook”. I don’t want to go into too much detail about the myth building in this movie, because that’s half the fun of watching it… but I will say when you hear the baba knock dook...dook...dook… prepare for all your sphincters to tighten.
The Babadook creature (oh yes, it’s a creature feature) itself was ripped straight from the inspirations of the German expressionism era, so I was drooling over every moment with it. I love that all the scenes with the Babadook creature are all in-camera tricks and practical FX. It gives it a sense of weight and realism to add to the nightmare the movie builds in your head. The design is clever, and fantastical, and something straight out of the darkest of dark Grimms’ Fairy Tales.
The director, Jennifer Kent, has a fantastic eye for horror/fantasy storytelling. You can also tell Kent has a confident hand when collaborating with her performers to obtain a character richness and empathy you connect with almost instantly; a very important facet - in horror especially - because we must care to be afraid. I would love to see someone like James Wan take her under their wing and help her navigate her first studio film here in The States. It would truly be a boon for American horror/fantasy fans.
Either way, I’m a fan of Kent’s now, and I look forward to any future creeps she might have up her sleeve.