Any good horror movie needs to have one thing and one thing only: atmosphere. If you don’t set the right tone for the film, you run the risk of its being not scary enough and therefore boring — or over the top, making it laughable.
There are many ways to achieve the right atmosphere, but restraint is often a highly effective choice, something the makers of The Babadook know well. The Australian film, which was just nominated for Best Picture for Australia’s Academy Awards, follows Amelia (Essie Davis), whose husband was killed in a car accident, leaving her the single mother of Samuel (Noah Wiseman).
Writer/director Jennifer Kent stays decidedly low-tech, using thumps, creaks and shaking furniture to elicit dread.
Samuel has a huge fear of monsters being in his room, something Amelia barely tolerates. One night, Samuel picks a mysterious book called The Babadook for her to read, and soon thereafter he starts displaying even stranger behavior than he had previously. But the more Samuel proclaims his fear of the Babadook, the harder it gets for Amelia to refuse to believe him.
Writer/director Jennifer Kent does a lot right in her feature debut, but the best thing she does is flesh out a believable story to complement the scares, instead of letting the horror be the entire show. Amelia and Samuel are both barely hanging on to a normal place in society, and as fear of the Babadook creeps into their lives, they start to get estranged from everybody around them.
With no one to turn to for help, the mother and son become isolated in their own house, a claustrophobic feeling that only heightens the anxiety. At this point, Kent knows you don’t have to do much to elicit screams. She stays decidedly low-tech, using thumps, creaks and shaking furniture to elicit dread. These techniques are horror clichés, to be sure, but they’re used expertly here.
There is also something about utilizing a child that amps up the terror exponentially. A fear of monsters is a common childhood idea, but it’s rarely been as palpable as it is in this movie. And when things start to go downhill in the second half of the film, the conflicting feelings Samuel engenders are a key point in the story’s success.
Davis has the hardest job in the film, tasked with ping-ponging between feelings of love, fear and outright hatred, and she pulls off the role flawlessly. Wiseman never overly impresses like some other child actors, but because his job is not as complex as Davis’, not as much is required of him.
The Babadook may not leave you curled up on the floor like some horror films, but it’s an impressive first effort by Kent. At the very least, it’ll have you double-checking your own closet.
The Babadook is playing at Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar.