Awards, I realize, do not matter to the actual quality of a movie. Quality is a subjective trait related to the person assessing such. That said, I wish to begin the most unlikely Oscar campaign of the year for Australian actress Essie Davis in “The Babadook.” “The Babadook” is a horror movie that may or may not play on the cliche elements of movies about demons and possession but Ms. Davis and indeed the film itself put the cliches to great use and for a larger, more thoughtful purpose.
“The Babadook” stars Davis as Amelia, a put upon single mom dealing with an increasingly troubled child. Amelia’s son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), like many children, believes he has a monster under his bed. This fact has kept his mother up late many nights in attempts at reassurance. Samuel’s monster takes on a name from a bizarre children’s book that Amelia does not recall having purchased, ‘The Babadook.’
‘The Babadook’ is not, in fact, a children’s book but rather an illustration of upcoming events that will change as events change in the home. This, of course, is not a new concept in horror but there is a twist here that only the observant audience member will be able to pick up on. What’s truly clever about “The Babadook” the film is how this book and all of the varying cliches of possession/demon horror movies are routed to a single emotional point, the death of Amelia’s husband on the day that Amelia gave birth to Samuel.
There is a very big, very complicated metaphor at play in “The Babadook.” Many mother’s struggle to connect with their own child. For Amelia, her son’s life is tied inextricably to the day her husband died. Thus, the seemingly supernatural elements of “The Babadook” take on a psychological weight allowing us to wonder if indeed Amelia is being menaced from without or within.
On a filmmaking level, “The Babadook” is exceptionally well crafted. The set design and lighting are incredibly evocative and compelling in their deep dark grays and blacks. I also loved the architecture of the home which feels cramped when necessary and overly expansive when its time for a character to make a getaway.
The sound design and character creation of “The Babadook” is wonderfully terrifying as well. The image of the character ‘The Babadook’ is a perfect picture of a childhood nightmare all sharp edges and darkness. The character seems modeled on Max Schreck’s Nosferatu with a little bit of Danny Devito’s take on The Penguin in “Batman Returns.”
The film ultimately boils down to just how much you believe in Essie Davis’s performance. I believed it completely. Davis does an extraordinarily complex bit of work here calling on some very difficult emotional damage to achieve just the right effect. Davis is portraying a mother who’s ambivalent about her son, still grief stricken over the loss of her husband six years later, and is, late in the film, clearly losing her grip on reality. That’s a large number of beats to be played and Davis is exceptionally in tune throughout.
Based on the title and premise I didn’t want to bother with “The Babadook.” I assumed I had seen this movie before in a dozen other horror movies. That’s true to an extent but “The Babadook” transcends the genre trash because it is exceptionally well directed by Jennifer Kent and because Essie Davis delivers what is arguably the best performance by any actress this year. That she’s done so within the strictures of the horror genre only elevates her triumph.