“See him in your room at night and you won’t sleep a wink”. I bury my head underneath the covers. For the first time in years I find safety in that childhood tactic. I shut my eyes tight for good measure.
This is all the fault of The Babadook. I’m now haunted by a pencil sketch of a razor fingered monster, but also by the fevered story of a mother battling this demon (or her own, or both).
Director Jennifer Kent offers us very little comfort in this claustrophobic chiller. From the off, it is clear that this is a broken family – grief, mental illness, financial troubles and alienation plague mother and son long before the appearance of any monster.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widow worn down by both grief and her live-wire son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Davis gives a masterful performance as a long-suffering mother; perfecting the forced composure of someone on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Similarly, Wiseman is brilliant as the odd kid. He is a screaming, antisocial and impossibly irritating child. Perfect bait for the paranormal.
Then one night he finds a new bedtime story on his bookshelf: Mister Babadook. After they read the sinisterstory, with its disturbing illustrations and foreboding ending, Amelia comforts her son who is wailing in terror. It’s only a story after all.
Except, it seems that “you can’t get rid of the Babadook”. From this point Amelia unravels. She becomes possessed by a demon – whether it’s the Babadook or the ghost that’s always been haunting her grief-stricken psyche is up for debate.
The Babadook works not by bombarding us with bogeymen and things that go bump in the night. Instead, it taps into a different piece of childhood fear: the idea of a mother turned monster; of security lost. The unease is compounded by a colour palette that washes out any cheer from this corner of South Australia. Even the ending brings little comfort. The lines between the real and imagined are just too entwined.
And that is what makes Kent’s horror so powerful. Our adult rationality fights with childhood anxiety and we’re left exactly where The Babadook wants us: not knowing the difference between story and truth.
Out now on DVD and Blu-Ray.