Australia (2014) Dir. Jennifer Kent
It’s fair to say that outside of the occasional hit, Australian cinema has not made the same international impact as other counties have with their films. Actress turned director Jennifer Kent is the latest Aussie to give it a go with this sufficiently creepy viewing experience.
Single mother Amelia Vanek (Essie Davis) is still haunted by the death of her husband six years on, which occurred while driving her to the hospital to have their son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Young Sam is obsessed with a monster stalking and his behaviour is causing disruption at school and at home, driving Amelia nuts and causing endless sleepless nights for her.
One night Sam asks Amelia to read him a pop-up book called Mister Babadook that mysteriously appeared in his room. Amelia reads Sam the book but gradually notices its dark content so she discards it. However the book seems to find its way back into the house no matter how much Amelia destroys it, coinciding with Sam’s increasing paranoia that the Babadook is coming after him.
Kent’s taut and unsettling film wears some of its influences on its sleeve – the brooding psychological torment of Asian horror, the jump scares of modern Hollywood shockers and the unnerving domestic plausibility of 70’s classic such as The Omen – which may or may not be deliberate but no one can deny it is an effective blend.
From the opening shot of Amelia reliving the car accident in a nightmare we are plunged head first into her bleak and unforgiving world which is about to become an even greater threat to her. Working as a nurse in an old folks home, one could argue Amelia is regularly close to death so she doesn’t need the constant threat of it at home either.
The sleepless nights and over active imagination of Sam is draining Amelia of her energy and patience but the lad’s paranoia spills over into their social life, with Sam injuring his cousin Ruby at her birthday party, the pair become ostracised by their friends and family. Then the book keeps reappearing fully repaired, despite being ripped up and burned, followed by the phone calls and finally signs of demonic possession over Sam.
Where Kent’s story works best is in the ambiguity of the reality of the situation, a perception that changes as the film progresses. Could this all be in the mind of Amelia who is clearly on the brink of a total breakdown? Or maybe the boy is telling the truth after all? Perhaps it is in Sam’s head, since no-one else can see the Babadook and its manifest form in the book reflects Sam’s fascination with magicians and the top hat and cape he likes to wear?
Much of the scares and horror comes from suggestion and assumption, often rewarding us with brilliant misdirection. In one scene Amelia spots a cockroach crawl out from under her fridge. There is a small tear in the wallpaper which Amelia tentatively rips open. Some people would have had something truly horrific burst through the wall – Kent subverts this with something which one could argue is just as chilling.
This reliance on audience expectation versus what is delivered yields some interesting results while staying true to the themes of the central plot of the mental torment Amelia suffers. Similarly and this may be a slight spoiler – the creature itself is rarely seen in full, but its ominous shadowy presence is sufficiently spine chilling enough, its top hat, long lank hair and spindly sharp nailed fingers being something of a mix between Freddy Krueger and Jerry Sadowitz!
In an age where horror filmmakers are intent on out grossing and out shocking everyone, often going way overboard thanks to the advent of CGI and the technological advancements in real life, Kent scores points for simplicity in having a good old fashioned book be the source of her nightmare. No computers, internet or mobile phones, a pop-up book with a sinister rhyme and stand up little figures which accurately prophesise a violent future engenders fear and repulse equal to the graphic visual of a severed head.
As much as the tale is to provide shocking entertainment for the bloodthirsty, it never loses its sight on exploring the serious issue of trauma induced mental stress in both parent and child. But, while this is admirably handled, the film gets a bit confusing but the final act and contains a protracted denouement which threatens to undermine the good work of everything prior to this. Presumably the idea is that we should confront the darkness that haunts us but the execution isn’t so convincing of that.
What does convince however are the central performances. Essie Davis gives herself completely to Kent for this role, detailing the extraordinary hell ride Amelia endures, the decline of her mental stability and succumbing to the dark forces relies as much on physical dexterity as is does on Davis astute conveyance of the emotional damage of this trauma. Amelia’s increasingly pallid and dishevelled appearance is frighteningly realistic, courting potential thoughts that Davis deprived herself of sleep on purpose.
At first Sam is hideously obnoxious and irritating, incessantly and loudly demanding his mother’s attention or squealing like a spoiled brat when his claims of the Babadook’s presence are dismissed. After fifteen minutes I found myself wiling the creature to appear to rid us of this little brat, but as the film rolls on, Sam’s role as irritant changes to believable victim. Credit then is due to newcomer Noah Wiseman who endures quite a bit in this role for a youngster but he copes admirably.
Messy ending aside there is a lot to enjoy in The Babadook and Kent’s less is more approach offers a refreshing change to the slasher/jump scare fare which is en vogue at the moment. Nicely shot and wonderfully acted this film cuts deeper than you might imagine.