In a time where studios aim for shocks over substance, especially with the advent of the found footage sub-genre, it’s great to see a horror movie that’s horrifying and about something. Director Jennifer Kent’s first outing as a horror director is a downright flawless effort that doesn’t just shock audiences, but has a ton of subtext, and undertones that deserve to be examined by literally everyone. It’s not just a movie about a mother and son being terrorized by a monster, but a movie about the mother and son dynamic. More to the point, it’s about the birth of a child, and how blame can often be misplaced on the unborn child for circumstances beyond their control.
Essie Davis gives a juggernaut of a performance as widowed mother Amelia, a woman who’s avoided discussing the horrific car crash that took her husband many years ago. She now lives in a flat with her son Samuel, and is fairly isolated. Her house is mostly a mausoleum for her memories, and Samuel’s behavior is more than erratic. He craves Amelia’s attention every hour on the hour with a large imagination she can’t understand, and his inventions that he is convinced will help protect his mother against monsters. Director Kent pairs the two in a small house that literally becomes a character with its own quirks and surprises that keeps the duo almost latched to it and instilling a heart beat within it.
From the opening shot, you get the sense the house has been injected with years of turmoil and activity. Things get worse when Amelia, in an effort to pacify Samuel, finds a mysterious book named “The Babadook,” and reads about a mysterious creature of darkness that sneaks in to houses and destroys families. Worse it foretells that Amelia will commit horrific deeds. Petrified, Amelia destroys the book and finds that Samuel’s behavior has worsened, with his constant shouting at empty space, and insistence that they’re in danger. Over the course of the movie, we watch not the monster but the paranoia of the monster looming at every corner, with Amelia losing her bearings in an effort to cure Samuel’s outbursts. She begins interacting with her son in unusual ways, looking for new ways to lull his fears, while completely unsure if the Babadook is lurking near, or if she’s merely as cracked as she considers Samuel to be.
Jennifer Kent delivers some magnificent direction (paired with masterful editing by Simon Njoo), turning the claustrophobic flat in to a womb that closes in at every corner, the more the fear of the Babadook grows. We’re never quite sure what’s unfolding, we just know that eventually something is going give. When Kent finally turns the screws, “The Babadook” explodes in to a furor of brilliant subtext and uncomfortable undertones about the mother and son dynamic, and the dangers of repressing our emotions, no matter how difficult they may be to face head on. “The Babadook” is easily the best horror film of 2014, a product of a genuine storyteller who builds a terrifying beast out of the deepest core human emotions that are scarier than anything with claws and fangs.