There’s a belief in modern horror that for something to be “scary” it has to fall into one of two categories, either the uber-gory endurance tests of torture porn, or the jump-scare laden haunted houses. That’s pretty much all they are anymore, which is sad because the breed of horror I find the scariest has always been the kind where an idea or an image gets inside your brain and disturbs you to your very core. Sure, zombie movies have their place, but they’ve never scared me the way a woman slowly going crazy in her house can. To that end, the best horror movie I’ve seen in a very, very long time is writer-director Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, which is opening wide this weekend.
A native Australian, Kent is a first time feature director and this movie comes as a spinoff/expansion of her 2005 short Monster, which touches on some of the same themes. From the above trailer, you might think this is a typical monster movie, and the international trailer even makes it seem like it’s a creature jumping out and going boo movie, but it’s not. It’s much deeper, and creepier, and unsettling than that, and it rests entirely on the shoulders of an amazing lead performance by Essie Davis. She’s a revelation. The story is much more about being at the end of your rope and being susceptible to evil in a way you never thought you would be. Doesn’t mean there’s not a creepy-ass thing in it, or a pop-up book that’ll give you nightmares on its own.
Davis plays Amelia, a single mother to a seven-year-old boy named Samuel (Noah Wiseman). We find out very early on that Samuel’s father died in a road accident while driving Amelia to the hospital to deliver him. So, she’s been left all on her own to raise this little boy for seven years. Samuel is a nice enough little boy, but he’s plagued by a debilitating fear of monsters which he believes are out to get his mother and him and only he can stop them, which leads to him making these ingenious but highly dangerous weapon contraptions that fire darts or bocce balls. Amelia doesn’t know what to do and she barely sleeps because Samuel will only sleep in her bed and only as close to her as a person can be. Even her sister thinks Samuel’s weird and doesn’t like having them around.
One evening, Samuel pulls a book off the shelf for them to read. Neither of them have seen it before; it’s called Mister Babadook, a pop-up monstrosity that seems okay and kind of Tim Burton-y at first, but slowly becomes violent and threatening. Samuel is, of course, terrified, and Amelia later reads the rest of the book and sees that it says Mr. Babadook will take her over, make her hate her son, eventually killing him and herself. She gets rid of the book and tries to put it out of her mind, but it’s not that simple, not when increasingly strange occurrences keep happening around her, and her patience with Samuel’s constant fear is pushing her ever-closer to the breaking point… and eventually, even she starts seeing the Babadook places.
I can’t say enough just how profoundly disturbing I found this movie. Though housed in a regular horror set up with a monster under the bed or in the closet, it begins to descend into a horrifying look at a mother losing her mind and putting her child at risk. Essie Davis has the amazing ability to be both sympathetic and threatening at the same time, sometimes changing on a dime, and in her eyes we see every emotion her face isn’t conveying. The relationship between this mother and son is very realistic, and you buy her frustration at him implicitly. This kid is incredibly annoying, but he’s terrified, so you can’t really get mad at him. It’s a terribly hard thing to parent, especially when you’re going at it alone.
The final act of The Babadook is when things really go off and their incredibly gray house ceases to be any kind of safety, when in every shadow could be lurking this horrible, demonic, top-hatted being. But that being said, this isn’t a movie that relies on the sight of the monster to be scary, because the monster is all around us. There are certainly moments of seeing Mr. Babadook, but what’s scariest is that he’s everywhere and can get inside our minds and pervert who we are, turning us into the monster. Amelia has to battle the darkness inside herself just as much as, if not more than, the external threat of something trying to get her son, and that’s the kind of horror that will stay with you the longest.
Don’t go in expecting jumps or gore, but give yourself over to The Babadook and its simple and effective storytelling and you’ll be scared for days in a way that a loud musical sting or a zombie tearing at flesh never could manage.