Raising kids is hard. You have to deal with their behavioral issues, and you have to juggle your work and home life. And then there’s the haunted storybook that unleashes a demon in your house.
That’s the premise of “The Babadook,” a truly scary and strange Australian horror movie that got a lot of attention at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and ended up on many critics’ Top 10 lists for the year. The film is finally making its theatrical premiere in Madison — but in a first, it’s premiering on campus at the Union South Marquee Theatre this weekend.
Essie Davis is phenomenal as Amelia, a single mom whose out-of-control 6-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is causing many sleepless nights for her. Her husband died in a car accident on the way to the hospital on the day Samuel was born, but Amelia has tamped her grief down to focus on Samuel.
Writer-director Jennifer Kent takes her time setting up the dynamics and pressures on this two-person family, so we really feel for Amelia, exhausted and sad but trying her best to put on a happy face for her son. Samuel, meanwhile, is one of those loud, tantrum-throwing kids you’re so glad isn’t one of yours, but Wiseman throws in moments of poignancy, showing what an outcast he is among the other kids, that make you sympathize with him, too.
And then comes “The Babadook.” Samuel brings Amelia a mysterious-looking pop-up book that she doesn’t remember buying, but she’s too tired to care. She starts reading it at bedtime, the tale of a mysterious figure in a top hat and cloak who visits a little boy’s house and won’t leave. As the book goes on, The Babadook grows more and more terrifying. “If it’s in a word or of it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of The Babadook.”
Unnerved by the book, Amelia puts it on a high shelf where Samuel can’t reach it. But then it shows up again. She rips it up and throws it in the garbage. It shows up on her front steps, the pages taped back together. And now the book has new pages that are even more horrifying, that show a mother killing her child and herself.
Kent is a master at building a sense of terror and dread, keeping the camera focused on Davis’ terrified face as she creeps down the stairs or hides under her covers. We only gets glimpses of the slithering Babadook, filmed in stuttering “stop-motion” for maximum creepiness. But glimpses are plenty.
Frequently, we’re only seeing what Amelia sees in the shadows, which both heightens the scares and makes us uncertain whether any of this is really happening. Is there an actual malevolent force at work, or is Amelia going insane? Or is Samuel a “bad seed” orchestrating all this mayhem?
I have little patience for bad horror movies, but I’m a sucker for a well-crafted one, and “The Babadook” is one of the best horror movies in recent years. That’s because Kent is so attuned to the struggles of parenting. The Babadook could be a metaphor for postpartum depression, or grief, or the thing that exhausted, stressed-out parents turn into when they no longer recognize themselves.
It’s that emotional foundation that makes “The Babadook” such a good film, and so scary. As a promotion, the artist who created the storybook in the film offered to hand-make real copies of the book for $80. It would be a great memento, but be careful — it might be hard to get rid of.