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21° & RAINY ON SUNDAY 17 NOVEMBER IN SYDNEY
By Tom Clift
May 19, 2014
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The Babadook

To anyone who can handle their heart in their throat, consider The Babadook highly recommended.
By Tom Clift
May 19, 2014
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A shadowy old house. A strange little boy. An unexplained object that won't go away. There's nothing particularly revolutionary about The Babadook; it's simply a matter of execution. Taking time-honoured plot points that in lesser hands would seem cliched, Queensland director Jennifer Kent has managed to craft a film that feels both entirely original and utterly terrifying. Featuring both a gripping lead performance by Essie Davis and one of the most creepifying monsters to ever stalk your dreams, The Babadook sets a bar by which future local horror films will be measured.

Davis plays Amelia, the overwhelmed, widowed mother of a seven-year-old problem child named Samuel (newcomer Noah Wiseman). A maladjusted and volatile lad with a penchant for producing homemade weapons, Sammy is quite the handful for his mum, who's still haunted by the trauma of losing her husband in a car-wreck while driving to the hospital on the night of her Samuel's birth.

One evening, while putting Samuel to bed, Amelia finds a mysterious new book on the boy's bookshelf. Written in Dr Seuss-style rhymes, the story it tells is of a strange, spindly-fingered creature named Mr Babadook. Although innocent at first, the stanzas grow steadily more menacing. Of course, by the time Amelia clues on to the fact that this might not be suitable bedtime reading, the damage has already been done.

In an age when 'scary' is so often mistaken for 'bloody', Kent gives us a reminder of the power of anticipation. With next to zero onscreen violence, The Babadook is the kind of slow-burn horror movie that gets under your skin and raises the hairs on your neck; the kind of horror movie that has you bracing yourself for the next scare yet still catches you off guard when the monster finally rears its ugly head. A stop-frame creation that lurks in the shadows, the eponymous Babadook moves with a slithering unreality that seems to freeze the blood vessels in your brain. You know he can't exist. And yet he does.

The terror comes also from our empathy with Amelia and Sam. Present in just about every scene, Davis is phenomenally good as Amelia, a worn-down figure who becomes increasingly erratic, and then monstrous herself, as the Babadook's presence grows stronger. More than once, the film implies that the creature may just be a product of Amelia's frazzled mind, pushed to the brink by the death of her husband and the constant demands of her son. In truth, that might be the most frightening suggestion of all.

Kent doesn't quite stick the landing, unfortunately. Ambiguity is one thing, but the ending here is just plain unclear. Even so, an unsatisfying coda doesn't undo what came before. To anyone who can handle their heart in their throat, consider The Babadook highly recommended.

To anyone who can handle their heart in their throat, consider The Babadook highly recommended.

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