'The Babadook' Review: A Hellishly Intense Vision Of Horror And Grief

(Note: this review originally ran in January during the Sundance Film Festival; we've republished it now as the film opens in theaters and on VOD this weekend.)The Babadook is one of the best horror movies in years, a vigorous and hellishly intense story about a family on the edge of sanity. This isn't a gore showcase, but a wild emotional roller coaster. (If you need a tonal touchstone, look to Polanski films such as Repulsion and The Tenant.) There is a monster of sorts, but the movie would almost be just fine without him — the actors put each other through fire and pain, and writer/director Jennifer Kent drops us right in there with them.

A few years after the death of her husband, Amelia is having serious problems with their young son Sam. The kid is a parent's nightmare. He requires constant attention and is afraid of monsters. One poor choice of bedtime reading material sends him off the deep end into fits of screaming terror. A threat of violence begins to emanate from the kid, and eventually manifests in a few ugly incidents.

That bedtime reading in question is a mysterious pop-up book called 'Mister Babadook,' featuring a clawed shadow-man who seems to be threatening Sam and Amelia from the book's very pages. His image fuels Sam's monster fears like a can of kerosene thrown on a campfire. When the story's events start to take place in their home, Amelia and Sam realize they might be seriously screwed, especially as one of the Babadook's promises is that he will pour himself into a victim.

But there's a lot more here than just the incursion of a maybe-fictional monster. There are good reasons that the mother/son pair is so susceptible to the fear instilled by the book. Poorly addressed issues from their past already had them a hairs' breadth away from cracking even before they learned of the Babadook. Most of the film's horror is derived from those very relatable family problems, and that makes the film all the more effective.

The filmmakers found Noah Wiseman, who plays the young Sam, at exactly the right time in his life. He's got big eyes and a giant toothy smile, and uses them to flip from adorable moppet to tiny terror in a beat. Six months later and he might have started to grow out of what makes him so perfectly suited to bring the character to life. (Which isn't to say that he should quit now; merely that his physicality at the moment this film was made is exactly what the role required.) While Sam's escalating hysteria in the film's first half threatens to become annoying rather than horrifying, patience is rewarded and his fits pay off.

The Babadook relies only lightly upon CG and other effects, instead letting the actors provide pyrotechnics. While the book's contents edge towards silly, the actors sell the effects the pages have on the family. The cast does not ever hold back, with both Wiseman and Essie Davis (as Amelia) playing well into the histrionic range. In some contexts that would be too much, but this is a horror film about a family on the verge of disintegrating due to extraordinary grief. Actors willing to flay themselves emotionally are huge assets. Essie Davis puts out so much energy she all but turns herself inside out.

Jennifer Kent keeps the reigns of the film firmly in hand. She keeps the story focus tight, never losing sight of the concept that acts as the film's underpinning, smartly parceling out shocks and a sense of utter dread. It's easy to see how the Babadook monster could be turned into the evil star of a film series, but that would be a shame — this movie is a great stand-alone vision of grief and the lasting effects of the death of a loved one. Essie Davis is destined to be remembered as one of horror's most nerve-jangling parental figures, and Jennifer Kent is a spectacular talent to watch.

/Film rating: 9 out of 10