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Sundance 2014 Review: ‘The Babadook’ Delivers Chills Fueled By Grief, Madness, and Closet Monsters

By  · Published on January 19th, 2014

A child’s imagination is fertile ground for monstrous explanations of things that go bump in the night, but what would it take for an adult mind to succumb to those same fears?

Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), haven’t had an easy go of life. Her husband died six years prior while driving her to the hospital pregnant with Samuel, and she still grieves at the loss. The boy’s birthday is a particularly painful reminder each year, but this time things worsen in dramatic fashion. Samuel’s been having nightmares, and when a mysterious pop-up book appears on his shelf the boy is finally able to put a name to the terror. Amelia tries to handle him with patience and pills, but his increasing aggression and her growing lack of sleep lead toward a horrific conclusion.

The Babadook is a child’s tale brought to life by a lethal combination of fear and grief, and as Amelia’s already tenuous affection for her son threatens to sever completely it adds a moving, psychologically devastating layer of terror to potential supernatural threat. It’s a simple tale, wonderfully told, and pretty much guaranteed to send chills coursing through your body.

Samuel’s behavior is a drain on Amelia’s energy and life, and while she constantly fights the urge to resent the boy it’s a downward spiral that becomes near impossible to escape. He gets into trouble at school, and when his violent tendencies injure his young cousin Amelia finds herself cut off from both family and acquaintances. It’s just the two of them left to face his fears of the Babadook, and while she tries to persuade him that the monster doesn’t exist evidence begins to mount to the contrary.

She destroys the book but then finds it restored and returned on her doorstep the next day. Ominous sounds echo through the house, and soon Amelia is seeing hints of the Babadook’s impending arrival too. The potential horror is paired with a mental breakdown as Samuel’s a little terror even under the best circumstances. As his nightly routine shores up his mother’s sleep deprivation and her state of mind deteriorates, a conflict between the two becomes inevitable.

The film is an adaptation of writer/director Jennifer Kent’s short film, “Monster,” and while some shorts suffer from being stretched to feature length she succeeds for the most part through a deftly handled escalation of the Amelia/Samuel relationship. There’s real loss, sadness, and love at the core of the characters’ journey, and it’s nightmare enough even without the supernatural elements.

Davis and Wiseman both deliver strong performances, and not just for a genre film. Davis makes Amelia’s pain tangible as she confronts the resentment, anger and grief of a mother who lost the love of her life and was left “only” with the parting gift of an imaginatively troubled child. Wiseman meanwhile bucks the expectation of kid actors being poor or overly precocious and instead shows legitimate fear and love, sometimes simultaneously. Together they bring real heart to the story which in turn makes the terror that much stronger and suspenseful.

The Babadook lacks the flashiness of recent horror hits like Insidious and The Conjuring, but its low-key nature actually works to its benefit by keeping the focus tight and emotionally present. It’s incredibly chilling, but the horror doesn’t take away from the raw emotion of a mother struggling against herself and stuck between connecting with her child or hurting him.

The Upside: Very creepy; wonderfully acted by both leads; uses effects sparingly but wisely; surprisingly funny and touching; emotional horror as satisfying as the supernatural

The Downside: A slight feeling of repetition late in the second act; dogs and horror movies just don’t mix

On the Side: Jennifer Kent starred in Babe: Pig In the City.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.