2014 has not been a banner year for horror. To capitalize on Halloween, Hollywood foisted both Before I Go to Sleep and Ouija on us, stinkers both. And only two weeks ago, the barftastic The Pyramid strut across the stage to an almost non-existent audience. The bar has been set rather low.
If you're an Australian director whose name isn't Baz Luhrmann, chances are no one knows who you are. Someone you definitely won't know is a woman named Jennifer Kent, the first-time director of The Babadook, which is the best horror movie since Antichrist in 2009. I'd also like to believe that it's fate that Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress, because the tone, look, and feel of The Babadook give the sensation that Polanski's classic has been reincarnated. The Babadook is easily one of my favorite films of the year.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother of a seven-year-old named Samuel (Noah Wiseman), an excitable, strange little boy whose behavior issues—both in and out of school—start to take a toll on his mother. She works at a nursing home, pouring tea for cranky old biddies, sardonically calling out Bingo numbers ("Does anyone have 5 billion?"), and getting the stink-eye from her boss. Samuel gets kicked out of school for freaking out other kids in his first grade class with stories about the Babadook, a shadowy, clawed figure that lives in dark corners of your bedroom, threatening to take over your body and do unspeakable things with it. Samuel learns about this wraith from a pop-up book that mysteriously finds its way onto his bookshelf. After Amelia keeps Samuel home, unusual occurrences start happening, including loud noises at night, Samuel's insistence on arming himself with quasi-dangerous weapons, and the persistent reappearance of the picture book, even after Amelia tears it to shreds and disposes of it. Things really start to go downhill when Amelia finds additional pages, in which images of her family's death pop out in disturbing fashion. Clearly, this situation is headed nowhere good.
Kent, working off a minuscule $2 million budget, pulls every trick out of the bag to scare, unnerve, and break you down, to the point where the harried expression on Amelia's face begins to mirror your own. This is a tense, harrowing movie, filled with subtly eerie sound design, misleading direction, and—most effectively—children in peril. On a meat-and-potatoes level, this film works beautifully, placing you squarely in the deteriorating mindset of a profoundly overstressed woman. Kent makes excellent use of negativity in multiple senses of the word: negative space, negative light, and negative emotion. And unlike many other films in the genre, the characters are never safe, even during the day. This prevents you from ever feeling like you are on solid ground, priming you for the worst at every possible moment.
You can thoroughly enjoy The Babadook without thinking too hard about it, but then you would be cheating yourself out of what makes it so great: the giant metaphor of it all. We feel distressed by this film not just because a dark, top-hatted ghoul is terrorizing the characters, but because we experience the overwhelming difficulties of single parenthood. Amelia does two things: work and take care of Samuel. She has no time to herself, and no other adult to share it with. The film establishes at the very beginning that Samuel's father died in a car accident on the day of his birth, and Amelia has been alone ever since. Her meals with Samuel are silent, functional. She reads to him in bed, but all other moments are filled with his strident voice and the mayhem he brings into her life with his wild imagination. The poor lady can't even masturbate without her son crashing through the door. So when Amelia really starts to lose it with the onset of the Babadook, it almost feels redundant. She has reached her limit, and no one—not even her sweet, be-Parkinsons'ed neighbor—can help her.
The two biggest movies with which The Babadook is competing have budgets that are 70 and 125 times its size (Exodus: Gods and Kings and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, respectively). The Babadook is tangible proof that money does not a quality movie make. If you're at all interested in having your mind blown, sprint, don't run, to this movie.