The problem with horror movies is almost as old as horror movies themselves. Case in point: a young, big-boobed teenager goes into the bathroom, opens the mirrored medicine cabinet, takes out a pill or whatever to help her sleep, closes the mirrored cabinet, and there in the reflection is whatever has been trying to kill her, accompanied by a sudden, loud addition by the orchestral soundtrack. We jump, but we knew it was coming, and it feels cheap. With The Babadook, that safety net of common place scares is taken away, replaced with gut-wrenching dread that will play on your primal fears for days (and nights) afterwards.
Amelia (Davis) is coming to her wit’s end, and her troubled young son Sam (Wiseman) is convinced there’s a monster in his room, going so far as to cobble together some home-made weaponry to ward it off. With Sam’s 7th birthday looming - and his birthday coinciding with the anniversary of his father/her husband’s death – Amelia discovers a children’s book called Mister Babadook, with the fun pop-up drawings not doing much to soften the violent imagery within. It’s not long before Sam substitutes his old boogeyman for this new one, and soon Amelia herself isn’t so sure that it’s all make-believe.
With the characters so uniquely and three-dimensionally drawn, the unpredictability of events puts you on the back foot almost immediately, as debut writer/director Jennifer Kent takes her time turning the screws, never showing her hand as to whether we should believe The Babadook is really tormenting this family, or if Amelia has finally had her fragile mind snap, or if we’re somewhere in between. Kent is also equally interested in the possible supernatural elements as she is in the very grounded horror of a mother potentially not loving her own young son, getting the movie’s claws into the audience’s subconscious and not letting go until the end credits.
Then there’s Mister Babadook himself, coming across like Dr Seuss’ Freddy Kreuger, a monster who knows there’s more to fear from the dark corner of the room or the creaking plank on the staircase than anything you can see outright.
With masterful, suspenseful direction and intelligent, grown-up writing coupled with performances you just don’t see in the horror genre, The Babadook is without a doubt the best horror movie of 2014, and one of the best of the last ten years.