Title: The Babadook

Director: Jennifer Kent

Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Tim Purcell and Hayley McElhinney

Conquering your fears to fully achieve your goals can at times be a more terrifying journey than whatever obstacles are placed in your way. Jennifer Kent, who made her feature film writing and directorial debuts with the new horror thriller, ‘The Babadook,’ powerfully overcame the challenges she faced while making the movie independently, and her strong will captivatingly carried into her resilient characters. While the movie, which kicked off the After Dark screenings section of the 2014 Savannah Film Festival, features enthralling mother and son protagonists who initially appeared to be naïve as they struggled to overcome their diverse views on evil, they fascinatingly learned to bond together to conquer their inner and true demons.

‘The Babadook’ follows single mother Amelia (Essie Davis), who’s struggling to raise her often difficult six-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Still contending with the fact that her husband died during a car accident as he was driving her to the hospital while she was in labor with their child, Amelia decides to take Samuel out of his school after several administrators inform her he’s aggressive and a constant disruption in class. While keeping him at home as she looks for another school to enroll him in, the fatigued mother reads Samuel a disturbing pop-up book, Mister Babadook, which he finds on his shelf one night, but she doesn’t remember buying. The title character (Tim Purcell) unnervingly taunts the mother and son throughout the story, promising when they discover the malevolent being, they’ll wish they were dead.

Amelia immediately puts the book on a high shelf in her bedroom, in an attempt to forget the disturbing story. She already has enough to contend with, as she comes to admit that her son is difficult and demanding in all aspects of life. Samuel doesn’t have any friends, not even his cousin Ruby (Chloe Hurn), despite the fact that their mothers are close. His peers often ignore him, in part because he only has two interests- performing magic tricks and creating weapons to fight monsters, including The Babadook, who he has become convinced is real.

After a tragic accident between Samuel and Ruby, Amelia’s sister, Claire (Hayley McElhinney), decides to cut off contact with the two. The severed relationship, which blindsides Amelia, makes her son’s fast approaching seventh birthday even more painful, as she’s now forced to face her late husband’s death on her own, without Claire’s support during their children’s joint birthday parties. With her mental health deteriorating as she receives signs that The Babadook may actually be real, including receiving eerie phone calls and answering the door after hearing knocking but no one being outside, she’ll stop at nothing to stop the evil that has been increasingly tormenting her and her son.

As a first-time feature filmmaker, Kent powerfully created a uniquely intriguing female character-driven horror movie that impressively relies on the innocent protagonist’s deepest fears to provide shocking scares of the unknown. The helmer enthrallingly wrote Amelia to become increasingly resentful of her son every year, as Samuel’s difficult behavior makes her miss the loving relationship she had with her late husband even more. Davis intriguingly embraced and portrayed the underlying bitterness her character felt about her son not embodying his father’s personality, which she effortlessly and slowly revealed with each of Samuel’s insistences that The Babadook is real. The actress also skillfully emphasized the stress of Amelia’s slow realization that the malicious spirit may not just be a figment of her son’s imagination, which continuously leaves viewers questioning whether their often unseen foe is truly real.

While Davis captivatingly showcased the at-times detached mother’s riveting descent into the belief that the seemingly impossible evil title spirit may in fact actually be targeting Amelia and Samuel, Wiseman was the true stand-out star of ‘The Babadook.’ The seven-year-old performer, who made his feature film acting debut in the horror thriller, compellingly infused his troubled character with a naturally gripping fear of what would happen if the title spirit actually infiltrated his way into his family member’s lives. The young actor fascinatingly garnered attention for his natural ease of infusing Samuel with a cunning and smart personality. While the boy behaves badly and refuses to listen to authority is a harrowing experience for Amelia, his persistence at making weapons and refusing to fully listen to authority allows him to defend himself and his ambivalent mother against the evil lurking around them.

Not only did Kent’s mesmerizing story and the brilliant performances from Davis and Wiseman infuse ‘The Babadook’ with frightening scares, the thriller’s Director of Photography, Radek Ladczuk, also offered a captivating examination of how an evil being can ultimately bring families closer together during their troubled times. The cinematographer enthrallingly emphasized the continuous emotional turmoil Amelia experienced as she debated how to best approach improving her son’s tumultuous behavior through captivatingly muted, yet equally menacing, tones throughout the beginning of the thriller. The intriguingly diverse range of whites, grays and blacks Ladczuk infused into the mother and son’s home, as well as the nursing home where Amelia worked as a nurse, powerfully emphasized the repressed lifestyle the two are living as they struggle to not only find solace with each other, but also in their struggle over The Babadook’s existence.

As The Babadook fully began to manifest itself and prove its existence to the initially skeptical Amelia, the Director of Photography smartly shifted to purely darker tones, particularly with the brief glimpses of the malevolent spirit as it innovatively lurked further to take full control over the mother and son. The brief, yet fully startling, images of the eerily sinister dark spirit grippingly highlight the fact that while the frightened mother and son aren’t fully aware of the total emotional and physical harm the spirit can unleash on them.

With Kent’s clever first feature directorial and writing effort smartly not relying on showcasing gruesome murders and unrealistic CGI effects as the major elements that drove the plot forward, ‘The Babadook’ is a gripping thriller that instead relies on intriguing cinematography to showcase how intelligently presented characters determine their own horrifying fates. Between Davis’ alluring representation of Amelia’s descent into the belief that the title spirit may in fact actually be targeting her family, and Wiseman interestingly infusing Samuel with a fear of what would happen if the title spirit actually infiltrated his way into their lives, the horror film is a chilling representation of how people need to conquer their fears to truly move on in their lives.

Technical: A-

Acting: A-

Story: B+

Overall: A-

Written by: Karen Benardello

The Babadook Movie Review (Savannah Film Festival)

By Karen Benardello

As a graduate of LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic, Karen Benardello serves as ShockYa's Senior Movies & Television Editor. Her duties include interviewing filmmakers and musicians, and scribing movie, television and music reviews and news articles. As a New York City-area based journalist, she's a member of the guilds, New York Film Critics Online and the Women Film Critics Circle.

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