The horror films that stand the test of time are the ones that literalize very relatable human fears and anxieties. This film plays on the anxieties of parenthood, the grief of losing your partner, the debilitating effects of loneliness, the resentment of your children, the stresses of single parenting, and the powerful fear that your child might be evil. In many ways the film acts as an allegory for mental illness. Horror works effectively not on the confirmation that something is wrong, but the suspicion that something might be, and nothing is quite as terrifying as wondering if you’re losing your mind like our protagonist Amelia does.
The plot follows single mother Amelia and her young son Samuel, as they experience a haunting presence in their home after reading a mysterious children’s book.
The horror genre is a particularly thankless one regarding performance praise. That’s a shame, as two of the strongest female performances I’ve seen this year have come from horror films (Alex Essoe’s performance in Starry Eyes being the other). Essie Davis is absolutely phenomenal as Amelia. She gives it her all emotionally, but does tremendous work simply by how she looks. She wears exhaustion and weariness naturally. She’s fully committed in each scene, and carries Amelia’s arc of possible insanity expertly, completely believable the whole time whether she’s smiling with motherly warmth, shrieking in fear or lashing out at others. At certain points you’re not sure if you’re more frightened of her or of the Babadook.
Personally, I find child actors to be either strikeouts or home runs. Noah Wiseman is a grand slam. He wears a cloak of childlike innocence, but with each scene he peels back the layers to reveal a disturbing violence and rage. The audiences attitude towards him shifts as the movie progresses as you realize he may not be the real danger. It’s a nice surprise that Wiseman pulls off well.
There’s an expert subtlety in the sound editing, when she reads the book for the first time, a high pitched cricket-like hum seeps underneath the scene, unsettling the audience in a craftily undetectable manner. The sparse yet deeply unnerving score by Jed Kurzel interplays with reality and fiction, as some of the jumpiest moments in the film come when the score abruptly stops when Amelia believes that the problem is solved. Even more impressive is how mystifying the film is when it uses near silence to depict the nightmarish aesthetic that writer/director Jennifer Kent has conjured up.
The production design by Alex Holmes is impeccable. The film feels like a dark fairy tale come to life due in no small part to his work. The symmetry of the architecture evokes the feeling of a pop-up book not dissimilar from the cursed one Amelia and Samuel read. The heightened aesthetic of the film benefits greatly from the construction of the costumes and setting.
Jennifer Kent has delivered a debut that is truly memorable. Kent uses similar techniques that were being used back in the days of German Expressionism to a particularly unique effect. The work done by Kent and cinematographer Radek Ladczuk calls to mind The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with their use of harsh lighting, expert in-camera tricks and reliance on practical effects. This all combines to make the danger and tension feel very physical and immediate. The editing is sharp and precise, allowing important exposition to be communicated to the audience visually. There is a strong sense of character, aesthetic and tension in this film that quickly establish Kent as a talent to watch. A friend of mine has been telling me to watch a short film of hers for a few weeks now, and after watching this I’m intent to do that sooner than later.