“If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” That odd sentence launches the scariest children’s picture book I have ever seen. The edition appears rather mysteriously on a shelf in little Sam’s bedroom. He brings the dark red volume to his mom to read one night after she encourages him to pick a bedtime story. It’s about a mysterious man in a top hat that will terrorize you the more you deny his presence. As she turns the pages the images literarily leap from the text. No paranormal trickery here. It’s merely a pop-up, but the black, white and gray illustrations are tactile and thick. Given their rudimentary shapes, the pictures are as if rendered by a youngster. This only heightens their ability to convey dread. They haunted me in a way I’ve never experienced. A book lying on your doorstep isn’t scary in and of itself, but in this film it’s alarming.
The chronicle appropriates standard horror tropes (i.e. the boogeyman, child in peril, dark spaces, flickering lights) but utilizes them to suit a tale that feels fresh. Amelia’s husband died tragically in car accident many years ago. However his death continues to linger on. Amelia is a single mother raising their now 6 year old son Samuel. He seems to have an overactive imagination. He’s constantly plagued by visions of an imaginary monster. His teachers are exasperated by his conduct. He has been a disruptive presence at school but this has also been a problem at home – particularly at night when he has difficulty sleeping. He has even gone so far as to build homemade weapons to protect himself and his mother.
The Babadook doesn’t rely on lazy scares by ratcheting up the soundtrack with loud sounds. Nor does it capitalize on disgusting sights. It intelligently exploits our anxieties and the unknown. I felt physically uneasy by the time we reached the climax. In that style, one influence on the movie might be Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. A lot of themes are addressed. There’s the obvious ghostly terror of the Babadook – this shadowy figure that is terrifying in the manner he‘s depicted. But there’s this mother child relationship as well. They form a strong bond throughout the picture. She is raising a son (Noah Wiseman) that exhibits some behavioral problems. Meanwhile the boy is trying to guard his mother from supernatural forces that threaten her. Their relationship forms an underlying subtext that elevates this drama to something deep and poignant. Both of the principals are exceptional but Australian stage actress Essie Davis is a revelation. Her emotionally powerful portrayal as Amelia, his mother, compares favorably with great horror performances from Mia Farrow and Ellen Burstyn. I didn’t expect to actually be moved by the events of the plot, but that’s exactly what happened. The Babadook is a film that ranks high with the very best of the genre.