I’m no connoisseur of horror films. In fact, I can hardly remember the last time I went to see one in the cinema (it might have been The Others back in 2001… so, a long time ago, basically). But every so often I feel the need to shake up my viewing habits, and currently I’m trying to get along to see as many films by woman directors as possible, so here’s this one, it’s Hallowe’en time of year, and it’s a horror film. Thinking about the genre, and why I don’t really get into it, it feels to me like its signifiers — the silence preceding the fright, the things jumping out at the viewer unexpectedly due to very careful control of the point-of-view, the threatening music cues — are often deployed for no greater effect than just to scare people. That has its value of course, and I get that lots of people enjoy the ride, but when it does things right — horror no less than any genre film — it ties its frights into something rooted in character. That’s certainly what The Babadook does.
It’s about a single mother Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (Noah Wieseman) who live together in — naturally — a creaking old wooden house with a dark basement and strange noises at night. When Amelia starts reading the eponymous children’s pop-up book to her son, a book which has appeared mysteriously on their shelves, things start getting scary. So far, so generic — albeit with an excellent sense of depicting empty threatening space, and with a quiet narrative momentum — but what the film does particularly well is to root the terrors in a formative act of horror: the tragic death of Amelia’s husband while rushing her to the hospital to give birth to Samuel. It’s this experience that opens the film, as Amelia wakes from another nightmare about it, and it’s implied that this has resulted in Samuel’s difficulties forming attachments, and it certainly informs the way that the family deals with the monster of the title. The film never really gets nasty at a visual level (this is no ‘torture p0rn’ of the Saw variety), but the sense of mounting terror and threat — which at times seems to emanate as much from Amelia’s grief and depression, and then from her son’s bitterness, as from any scary monsters — provides a series of chills and scares, and does so increasingly effectively. So maybe I need to get over my hang-ups with the horror genre.
Director/Writer Jennifer Kent; Cinematographer Radek Ladczuk; Starring Essie Davis, Noah Wieseman; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Camden Town, London, Thursday 6 November 2014.