Tuesday 25 October 2022

From the archive: "The Babadook"

Here’s a test case for you: in the year of our Lord 2014, is it still possible for a movie to make scary the long-careworn tropes of monsters in the closet and under the bed? The rattling Aussie chiller The Babadook reckons yes, but then its methods go back somewhat further than the current cycle of Sinisters and Conjurings: there’s a crafty hint of Val Lewton lurking somewhere in its choice Expressionist shadows.

Jennifer Kent’s debut turns on one of the cinema’s most fraught mother-child relationships since The Exorcist. Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mum juggling an already demanding care home job with an even tougher after-hours gig – mothering oft-expelled pre-teen Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Sam’s hyperactivity extends to his imagination: one night, after a bedtime read-through of a mysterious pop-up book, he becomes convinced its caped, top-hatted protagonist – think Jerry Sadowitz via Tim Burton’s Penguin – has stationed himself somewhere around the house.

You might not realise it at first, but we’re actually getting three books in one here: not just a horror story, but a mental health treatise (“I’m heading to the dementia ward,” says Amelia to a colleague, jokey foreshadowing that seems increasingly likely) and a parenting text – actually not so far removed from Christos Tsolkias’s novel The Slap – on how having kids can destabilise your relationship with the rest of the world.

Kent turns the mother-son business into a compelling topsy-turvy. Initially, Kent seems to be directing Wiseman merely to be obnoxious – kicking the driver’s seatback, pushing a contemporary out of a treehouse – summoning the memory of that immortal couplet by Half Man Half Biscuit, Birkenhead’s foremost social observers: “Is your child hyperactive/Or is he perhaps a twat?”

As The Babadook proceeds, however, the real threat to this household becomes unclear. The tightly strung Amelia is beset by a nagging toothache, apparently the result of nervy comfort-food binging; even when attempting to find sexual release, climax has to be deferred after a sleepless Sam walks in on her. With her insomnia-enfeebled gaze and gait, her hair perpetually at wits’ end, the impressive Davis sure looks the part, and her tension and stress become those of the film: soon, both image and audience are quivering in sympathy with her.

She’s just one among Kent’s subtly unsettling effects; elsewhere, ground glass appears in soup bowls, cockroaches scuttle, while the book at the film’s centre – a properly haunting artefact, superbly designed by Alexander Juhasz – keeps returning with new pages and new threats. I missed Mister Babadook’s first appearance, having blinked; a collective frisson among those around me, however, suggested that something was in the air.

Even Alex Holmes’s spare, insistently grey production design undercuts the prevailing suburban realism: by the final act, this more than faintly institutional residence has become a prison or asylum, beset by demons more potent than any children’s book can magic up. Tell yourself it’s only a story by all means, but you’re still going to have to kiss the kids goodnight and then switch off the reading light.

(MovieMail, October 2014)

The Babadook screens on BBC2 at 12.15am tonight, and will be available on the BBC iPlayer thereafter.

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