Sure, the name is a bit odd, but don’t let that dissuade you from checking out Australian director Jennifer Kent’s first feature film project, Babadook. It’s a very successful venture into the evil spirit under the bed genre of horror films. It doesn’t open in theaters and on demand until November 28th, but it’s released on DirecTV starting today, October 30th.
Where contemporary films tend to follow fairly consistent narrative tropes, Babadook goes at things in it’s own way. Amelia (Essie Davis) has to battle her own emotional demons while dealing with a deeply troubled young son, Samuel (Noah Wieseman). Watching the mother trying to raise the very out of control Sam is every much as unsettling as the horrors that later arise. The violent death of her husband several years before has scarred them both, and she’s doing her best to keep it together, but they are both individuals coming apart at the seams.
Sam has a strong fear of monsters and things that go bump in the night, which is regularly setting him off. In a moment of less than ideal parental judgment, Amelia finds a boogeyman-type story in popup book titled Babadook (which is the name of the monster/demon as well as the sound that it makes), and reads it to Sam. This seems to only accelerate Sam’s phobias and certainty that the monster is waiting for him in every shadow.
The story then takes an interesting approach as Amelia flips through the book (with the various pop-up scenes now changed and seeming to show her and her son), and seems to imply some nasty things are waiting for them in the near future.
It’s almost a relief to see any horror film these days that isn’t part of the found footage genre, so that gets one star all by itself. The performances by both Essie and Noah are first rate, and they never degrade into the over-the-top emotional antics that have become all too common. One of the great things this story has for it is that the people themselves aren’t just shallow “good guy”, “douche”, “alcoholic” archetypes, but rather people who feel much deeper, and have been very broken by the loss of the husband/father, but are trying to find their balance once again. The recent Oculus was challenged by having the remnants of a family trying to make sense of a tragic past, but one never really cares (or interested) in the characters. Jennifer’s writing keeps us engaged, and she builds the dread of what’s behind the next corner often by not showing the monster. We’ve already seen it as the character in the book, so she has the keen hand to let us fear the image in our heads, rather than having to show it fully formed.
It’s so often said that horror works best when it’s your own imagination that does the dirty work, and this film is a great way to turn that imagination loose. If this is any sign of the kind of things we can expect from Jennifer behind the camera, we’ll be waiting eagerly for her next effort to hit the screen.