Writer: Jennifer Kent
Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West
Running Time: 93mins
The lowdown: Check under the bed, in the wardrobe and lock all the doors, the debut of Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent may cause a spate of impromptu late night OCD. Essie Davis is superb as a single mother battling with grief, loneliness, insomnia and the growing realisation that the monster her troubled son fears may not be a work of fiction. A new nightmare is a-knocking. Let him in.
The verdict: In a genre currently rife with sequels, reboots and rip-offs, horror newcomer Jennifer Kent has managed to tap into familiar terrors but create an original experience.
Six years on from a tragic accident, Amelia (Davis) is struggling to cope. Unable to sleep and driven to breaking point by the increasingly inappropriate behaviour of her young son Sam (Wiseman), her nerves are shattered.
And then the monster appears.
We are introduced to Mister Babadook courtesy of a mysterious pop-up book channelling Edward Gorey and Dr Seuss, but with a nasty streak going beyond anything Roald Dahl could imagine.
With his top-hat, talons and toothy grin, Mr Babadook resembles the boogeyman incarnate with a dash of Nosferatu, Carnival of Souls and The League of Gentlemen’s Papa Lazarou.
The name conjures images of a creature born of European folktales and superstition. Kent adopts a timeless fairy tale feel, albeit of the very Grimm variety. German Expressionism laced with pitch-black Australian humour.
Davis’ portrayal of a mother at her wits end is a terrific tour-de-force. Lonely and alienated, losing the sympathy and support of friends and colleagues, her patience balances on a knife’s edge. Her world revolves around her son and he’s not making it easy for her.
Noah Wiseman’s pale, wild-haired, wide-eyed Sam is by turns clingy, aggressive, protective and vulnerable. Wiseman moves between these states with such skill, it’s easy to forget this is the six year olds’ feature film debut.
Unlike recent horror directors, Kent understands less can mean so much more. She utilizes sound to often bone-shaking effect, conveying size and presence with a rumble or sinister scuttle. The muted colour scheme suggests a subtler Tim Burton – washed-out blues and greys contrasting with the Babadook’s stark funereal apparel.
Gore lovers may be disappointed; the scares here (jumps excluded) are mainly psychological and those used to Blumhouse Productions’ terror template, be warned: there’s no third act expert on hand to dole out explanations and beastie-busting tips.
Those seeking something different will be richly rewarded. This is a tale that takes well-travelled twists and turns but leads somewhere unexpected and deeply affecting.