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The Babadook is the directional feature debut from writer/director Jennifer Kent, making her stamp with a very atmospheric horror movie.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widowed woman and a struggling single mother to her six-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Samuel is a disruptive boy, making weapons and unable to sleep because of his fear of monsters. Amelia herself suffers from nightmares, insomnia and grief and life is made worse when she cannot control her son, gets rejected by her family and Samuel after seeing a monster known as The Babadook resulting from reading a horrific pop-up book.
The Babadook is what a horror movie should be. Soundly based on atmosphere and tone, having creepy visuals and good use of sound. Jennifer Kent excels at this and shows great potential as a filmmaker, making a standout horror movie. There is only one jump scare and violence was kept to a minimum, being fairly minor for an R-rated movie. Kent was more interested in setting up the world, having haunting visuals with the black-and-white figures in the book ‘Mister Babadook’, giving the monster a very distinct look and Amelia seeing the small hints of the Babadook as she begins to slowly lose her mind.
Kent made sure her movie was visually distinctive. Amelia and Samuel live in a dark, cramped house, making sure the setting is claustrophobic, with little space to run. It is in stark contrast to Amelia’s sister’s home which was white, bright and spacious and Amelia’s appearance is much more drab than the immaculate middle class parents at Amelia’s niece’s party, having trivial concerns. The movie is filled with plenty of visual tricks, using time lap editing, montages of TV footage, particularly silent film footage, the design of the Babadook and scenes of Amelia falling onto her bed. The book ‘Mister Babadook’ had a simplistic, black-and-white design, having creepy visuals as it prophesises the future, getting more and more disturbing as characters continue to read it, a dark version of The Neverending Story.
The Babadook is structured in three distinct acts, the first being the relationship between Amelia and Samuel with Samuel seeing the Babadook, the second focusing on Amelia’s struggles and slowly being overtaken by The Babadook and the final being a role reversal between mother and son as they battle their figurative and literal demons.
Many of the best horror movies have deeper underlying themes and The Babadook is no exception. The most obvious is the mother/son relationship between Amelia and Samuel with strains of single parenthood and the isolation they suffer. Grief is another issue as Amelia is still suffering from the loss of her husband, dying the day Samuel was born. As Amelia is being taken over by the Babadook it leads to a theme of mental illness, Amelia battling depression as she suffers from mood swings and basically develops a split personality, the motherly side and the violent side that manifests through the procession.
Even when the movie starts, Davis as Amelia looks like a woman who is drained, worn down by grief and struggling caring for her son. Her storyline of struggling with her son seeing a monster felt very much like The Sixth Sense, told from the mother’s point-of-view, a woman unable to cope with her son having a supernatural threat that she cannot see. She suffers real world concerns, her lack of sleep, her financial worries, the breakdown of her relationship with her sister, the weight of her grief and it being linked to Samuel’s birth and the threat of social services.
Sound also played an important role in The Bababook and well executed in its use. There are typical high pitch sounds, banging sound effect and music for a horror movie, but it has the desired effect, particularly the use of a song sung by creepy children and stopping when Amelia destroys it. The Babadook himself has a croaky, slow speaking voice, making him an intimidating presence and his appearance is often kept in the shadows.
The horror genre has a reputation problem because it is dominated by sequels, remakes and violent schlock for hounds baying for blood. The Babadook goes against that stereotype, investing in its characters, making audiences care about the plight, both the threat from the Babadook and working as a family drama.