Don’t Read but Watch ‘The Babadook’

Courtesy of IFC Films

Courtesy of IFC Films

The horror movie genre has one of the biggest draws from modern cinema audiences, sometimes generating as high as 40 million dollars in the opening weekend of a new release. Despite the big receipt returns, the actual state of the genre has been one that’s the equivalent of a roller coaster ride.

Throughout most of the last decade, the genre has been highlighted by movies exploiting gore and providing jump scares aplenty. Admittedly, there are some films that have managed to adequately utilize those elements; the rest are prime examples of lazy, clichéd filmmaking.

However, every so often, there’s a new movie in the genre that proves that old-school elements of creepy atmospheres and striking visuals are still thriving well. For 2014, that movie is Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook.”

Set in South Australia, Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widow who has had to single-handedly raise her young son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) after her husband’s tragic death in a car accident. Six years have passed and Essie is still stricken with grief, which has also contributed to her verbally lashing out at Sam. Worst of all, Sam has begun to exhibit unstable behavior due to an imaginary monster he believes is haunting his room.

Push ultimately comes to shove for both of them when Essie reads him a pop-up storybook called “Mister Babadook,” which is about a supernatural entity that indefinitely torments someone once they’re made aware of his existence. The reading of the story leads to weird things happening in the house and Essie’s denial of the Babadook’s alleged existence causes her to lose her sanity.

“The Babadook” is the type of horror movie I admire the most, the ones that are less showy in their content, but somehow scarier because the director asks the audience to picture in their head what doesn’t appear on camera. That approach creates a great balance with the chilling imagery that is directly projected on screen, and is one of many praise-worthy aspects in this brilliant horror film.

In a year that has been highlighted by many great lead female performances, Essie Davis adds to that list with her magnificent performance as the grieving mother. She essentially has to play multiple personalities of this character that become more complex every minute, and she sells all of them to stunning effect.

Noah Wiseman is also surprisingly good as Samuel, which is a shock for me to say given that I have a major love/hate lens for most child actors. The character initially comes off as slightly annoying, but his precociousness shines through as the Babadook’s presence grows, and Wiseman translates that trait to effectively portraying the truly raw emotion of a psychologically troubled child.

The real all-star of this film, though, is debut writer-director Jennifer Kent, who shows a profound love for horror movies that date back to the 60s, 70s and 80s. The evident inspiration of horror masters like Roman Polanski and John Carpenter are blanketed across almost every frame, featuring immaculate visual detail and strong practical effects. The sound design is also quite effective where the noises inside the house vary from high to sometimes very low volumes.

In addition, Kent’s methodical pacing is especially well crafted in steadily building up the scares that happen in the house at nighttime and they increase more as the film progresses. Seriously, if the final half hour doesn’t scare you senseless, there’s something wrong with you.

In an age where horror movies aren’t as strong in quality as they were in past decades, “The Babadook” is a thorough reassurance that the genre’s old-school aesthetic remains six feet above the ground. Featuring two excellent lead performances and a surprisingly profound story amid an abundance of scares, “The Babadook” is, simply put, the best horror movie of 2014.

 

RECOMMENDED: “The Babadook” is a prime example of intelligent horror, something that has been lacking more in the genre in the past decade.