SIFF Review: The Babadook

If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook…

This is the promise facing single-mother Amelia (Essie Davis) and her young son Sam (Noah Wiseman). After a car accident killed her husband on the day of Sam’s birth, Amelia has been struggling to hold their lives together amid the fog of grief that just never seems to lift. As the film opens near his seventh birthday, her love for him is constantly tested by his ever challenging behavior.

Sam has a bit of an abandonment issue, needing constant reassurance that Amelia will never leave him, as well as a debilitating fear of monsters. Sam is a constant presence in Amelia’s bed, after numerous searches and sweeps of the closet and under the bed do nothing to calm his nerves and convince him that there are no monsters hiding.

After a bedtime story misfire, wherein Amelia and Sam are introduced to the horrors of Mr. Babadook, a macabre pop-up book from Tim Burton and Edward Gorey’s worst nightmares, Sam takes a turn for the worst, acting out more and more until he is dismissed from school, and Amelia’s sister refuses to allow them near her picture-perfect family after an incident that leaves her daughter injured. This sudden banishment leaves Amelia and Sam virtually cut off from the world, stuck in their home with only each other. In this isolation, Amelia’s emotional state begins to crack, as parenting Sam begins to be a little too much for her. It is also at this point that a dark presence begins to make itself known, and as time goes on, both Amelia and Sam begin to realize that Mr. Babadook was much more than a simple book.

Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, The Babadook is a fantastically creepy exercise in psychological horror. The terror brought about by the presence in her home is only amplified by Amelia’s increasingly fragile mental state, as she deals with the stresses and isolation of single-parenting a difficult child. It is at once a horrific bedtime story and an examination of the effects of grief, loss and depression, and each aspect feeds the other perfectly.

Davis turns in a complex and brilliant performance as Amelia. The character runs through so many emotional states that simply watching the performance is exhausting, and she really nails every single one of them. And Wiseman was a fantastic choice for Sam. His toothy smile and his buoyant energy make him at one moment an adorable, precocious boy, and in the next a complete monster. You can absolutely understand how Amelia is on the edge when you see the way Sam can turn. He demands a great deal of attention and is constantly testing every level of patience the poor woman has. Watching their interactions, you can certainly sympathize with the stresses that come with this territory, and while you can love Sam, you can certainly see why Amelia is having such a difficult time.

All of the psychological and emotional elements at play feed wonderfully into the terror that begins to build in the home around the shadowy figure of the Babadook himself. And don’t worry – there are plenty of frightening moments. Just because the film is an examination of the psychology surrounding stress and grief, that doesn’t mean it can’t also be scary – and The Babadook has some really terrifying moments. Kent makes great use of darkness and shadows, and the charcoal illustrated look from the pop-up book sets the stage for the look and feel of the scene when the monster enters the real world. She stretches a small budget a long way, and comes up with some very effective and creative ways to keep the audience on edge.

When Mr. Babadook final makes his presence known, you’ll want to dive under your covers and hide until morning.

  • Need to see this – nice review! I’m going to look it up!

  • I am circling back on this. I watched it. I LOVED it. I’m still contemplating that ending!