The best movie monsters are oftentimes metaphors for real world issues, whether we’re talking about the zombies in George Romero’s films or that big green dude in Godzilla. This year, you can add Mister Babadook to that list, as well as any list that collects together the horror genre’s most memorable icons.
Written and directed by Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent, and based on her 2005 short film Monster, Kickstarter success story The Babadook centers on single mother Amelia and her son Samuel. After discovering a strange children’s book in the house, the fictional monster inside appears to leap off the pages and infect their lives, and young Samuel becomes determined to protect the only parent he has left.
Us fans can often be found complaining that all the great icons are in the past, and that’s because very few modern horror movies have given us monsters that will stand the test of time. Like Trick ‘r Treat‘s Sam before him, the titular monster in The Babadook is that icon we’ve been waiting for, a sort of Freddy Krueger for this generation that also calls to mind the likes of Nosferatu and Lon Chaney’s character in London After Midnight.
But it’s the meaning behind that monster that really solidifies its status, and the film as a whole, as one of the best in years. Horror films these days are oftentimes sorely lacking in the depth department and The Babadook has enough gravitas to make up for a few dozen of them. It’s unfortunately hard to speak any further about that without giving important details away, so let’s just say that there’s more to this monster than meets the eye – MUCH more.
Of course, a monster is nothing without an adversary, and Essie Davis’ Amelia is a damn fine one. Amelia is the sort of damaged mother who’s just barely holding it together on a day-to-day basis, and Davis admirably embodies that fragile woman in every possible way. Amelia is either the victim or the villain, depending on what point of the film you’re at, and the duality of Davis’ performance is truly a sight to behold. You genuinely feel for her, as well as her son, which is one of the hallmarks of great horror.
Many have compared The Babadook to The Shining, and that comparison is perhaps most strong when it comes to Amelia’s son Samuel. A troubled outcast who wants nothing more than his mother’s love, Samuel very much evokes the spirit of Danny Torrance, especially in the sense that you’re initially unsure if he’s the crazy one or the smartest one in the film. In his acting debut, 7-year-old Noah Wiseman is quite remarkable, turning in one of the best ‘creepy kid’ performances in recent years.
This may sound weird, considering The Babadook is a horror film and all, but my only real issue with it was Kent’s decision to travel a bit too far down the path of horror, which – for me, at least – somewhat diluted the brilliant allegorical subtext that she so effectively set up. The film works best when the lines are blurred between reality and delusion, and there’s a point in the latter half where it feels a bit too ‘demonic possession.’ Ultimately, however, everything comes together brilliantly in the end, so that’s really just a minor personal gripe.
By giving a corporeal form to the fear, pain and sadness that is an inherent part of the human experience, Jennifer Kent has crafted with The Babadook a film that’s both frightening and almost depressingly relatable, managing to say more in her debut feature than many filmmakers say in their entire careers. Kent’s inaugural masterpiece is A Nightmare on Elm Street for Generation Medication, managing to be an effective spook-show and one of the most powerful social commentaries in the genre’s history.
Believe the hype. And experience one of 2014’s best for yourself. The Babadook is the real deal.
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