Was it only a dream? Six-year-old Sam (Noah Wiseman) wakes up in the middle of the night and scurries to his mother’s bed. He was having a nightmare, but so was Amelia (Essie Davis), or so it seems during The Babadook’s arresting, morbidly beautiful opening, in which we see Amelia, head and shoulders fixed in the frame, surrounded by void, jostled as through in an accident, then buoyed, eyes wide, as though suddenly submerged. Amelia’s dream, we’ll eventually learn, is an echo of past experience, while Sam’s bogeyman may just be something all too real.
What’s real and what’s dream? In Australian director Jennifer Kent’s terrifyingly confident debut the daylight drapes everything in a patina of realism, yet those interiors, especially in Amelia’s house, with its blue walls, doors and mouldings, possess an otherworldly dollhouse drabness, a little like Aki Kaurismaki’s colour-noir lighting, except in this case the décors seem more in keeping with the aesthetic of a sinister, austere children’s book. In The Babadook, just such a book is the trigger for nightmares and waking life to merge into a single stream.
The best horror films for adults, I mean the ones that lodge themselves in some corner of your psyche where rational thinking helplessly dissolves, are the ones where the scariest things are the real things. In the first, best third of The Babadook, nothing is scarier than the notion of being a widowed single mother with a potentially monstrous child—in certain ways, The Babadook is the crisper, leaner version of Xavier Dolan’s Mommy. (It’s also strikingly similar in its themes to the recent Austrian film Goodnight Mommy, which I hope someone will screen here sometime soon.) Sam is turning into a menace in his first grade classroom, and he’s just as unruly when Amelia takes him to visit his relatives. What’s more, his nightmares have become nightly, driving both he and Amelia batty with sleep deprivation. (Which I can tell you, speaking as lifelong insomniac, is one of the ways that dreams and reality can get troublingly blurred.) And when Amelia’s not struggling to control Sam’s erratic, sometimes violent behaviour, she’s working in the dementia ward of a nursing home, which isn’t going to help anyone’s grip on reality.
And here’s one more turn of the screw: Sam’s birthday is also the anniversary of his father’s death, and Amelia’s reluctance to celebrate it is one sign of her protracted, debilitating grief—and such levels of grief, in the realm of The Babadook, can manifest as something like demonic possession. Which is where Kent started to lose me a little. The film’s title comes from a mysterious children’s book that might be stalking the characters. A marvellous tension thrives in the film’s initial ambiguities. Again: what’s dream?, what’s real?, what’s madness, anxiety, grief, trauma? This is the sort of ambiguity that Roman Polanski excels at in films such as Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. The Babadook thankfully never completely succumbs to horror-trope autopilot, but in the over-extended hysteria of its climax it does start to feel a little too much like The Ring 2. Anyway, I won’t quibble too much. There’s enough here that gets under your skin and past the guards of your unconscious, and Kent’s use of space, light, sound and performance is very impressive. Whether you like spooky movies or not, watch out for this name.