Overview: After finding a cryptic children’s book and dealing with her son’s concerns about a monster in his room, a widowed mother begins to suspect a sinister force is present in her home. Causeway Films/Smoking Gun Productions; 2014; 94 Minutes.
Kent/Davis: If Jennifer Kent’s first feature,The Babadook, is any indication, we’ll be talking about this actress-turned-director for quite some time. I hope the same holds true for star Essie Davis. In Davis, Kent has found the perfect base ingredient for a stellar debut. As widowed mother Amelia, Davis demands the sympathy that is imperative for this sort of layered horror to connect with an audience. Davis wears Amelia’s fatigue, stress, anxiety, and potential psychosis not just in her face, but in the frazzled ends of her hair and the knuckles of her gnarled fingers. The balance between psychotic and supernatural readings is not subtle in The Babadook; when neither the psychological or the supernatural interpretation proves louder and clearer than the other, it’s not because the separate possibilities are being whispered. Essie Davis’ performance serves as the nucleus of this loud uncertainty in a way that begs comparison to Michael Shannon’s flawless turn in 2011’s Take Shelter. In both cases, the performers communicate anxieties that are true and universal while shouldering unlikely paranormal details in a way that feels real.
A Haunted House: Amelia and her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) live in a bland house, the sort of house that imagination might illustrate if memory were to fail, a house with minimal decoration, boring wallpaper, and chips in the dull pastel paint job. Kent has chosen the ideal setting for both a haunted house story and the story that chronicles the destruction of a nuclear family. When the elements of traditional horror take effect, they settle best into one of two places: this worn domestic space and the expressive-to-the-point-of-spastic face of young Wiseman.
Pacing: For most of its runtime, The Babadook holds the best pacing of any horror film I’ve seen this year. It is a film expertly aware of its genre’s formula and expectations. Its best scares are informed by what has always worked in horror–indecipherable motion in the darkness, creepy disembodied voices, the audience being shown less to imagine more, and, finally, the overtly gruesome (there’s no comfortable explanation for why Amelia vomits that much blood, but it feels like Kent has to check all of the boxes, just to be sure).
Stumbling: And ultimately, it is this confidence in her technique that might serve as Kent’s single (but poorly-timed) misstep. In the closing minutes of The Babadook, the film leans too heavily on its own skill and hyper-extends its strongest muscle. Narrative and thematic clarity are both dropped during a climax that instead pursues the opportunity to display more chilling sensual stimulation.
Overall: The Babadook marks what will likely become an important debut, but if Director Jennifer Kent had proven to be as adept at using her brake as she is at using her acceleration pedal, this film might have been an instant classic.