Horror movie acting is the type of acting most commonly undervalued by the general public, due to a lifetime of campy splatter fests where the only thing actors involved with the production need to do is turn up, scream and get dismembered. Yet if taken at more than face value, isn’t horror acting the most difficult type of acting to pull off? You have to sell unbelievable emotions to an audience, making a bizarre, almost laughable situation seem realistic. Being a horror actor means your performance is largely responsible for making the audience buy into the authenticity of the eery atmosphere, a success which should be as indebted to the actor as it is to the director controlling the scares from behind the scenes.
The reason The Babadook is so scary is because it grounds itself within two perfectly pitched performance that make the silliness of its premise completely tangible. In a depressing South Australian suburb, widowed mother Amelia (Essie Davis) is having a hard time raising her six year old son Sam (newcomer Noah Wieseman). He is terrified of the thought of monsters under his bed and is something of a wet blanket; his need to be with his mother at all times is putting constraints on her relationships with friends and family as well as her job at the local old folks home. Her relationship with her son is conflicted; his dad died as he was driving to the hospital when Sam was being born and her life has been in a state of misery ever since. She has a fleeting work flirt, but there is nothing in the way of romance. Even her masturbation gets interrupted by her son running in and screaming to be saved from monsters, so what time does she have for another romantic partner?
Sam’s behaviour at school finally gets too out of hand and he is separated from the other children for his own personal behavioural difficulties class. After throwing a tantrum, Amelia decides to make him feel better by reading any book to him that he wants; he goes to the shelf and picks up a never-before-seen pop-up book called “Mister Babadook”.
“If it’s in a word or if it’s in a look….. You can never get rid of the Babadook”
The telling of this harrowing fable, which is told via beautiful pop-up design that recalls Tim Burton in his prime, sets about a chain of events that cause both mother and son to question their sanity. Sam believes this is conclusive proof that monsters exist and tells everybody to fear the Babadook; Amelia grows increasingly afraid of her son – not least because she’s starting to hear the sinister knocking at the door from Mr. Babadook herself. In a nutshell, it is We Need to Talk about Kevin meets Poltergeist. I know it is derivative to describe a film as nothing more than (x) meets (x) – but this is a rare case where it is every part the equal of those indirect influences.
2014 has been notable for being the year when all the best performances are female driven, in movies that will never get recognition by the Academy (it waits to be seen whether Rosamund Pike’s bananas performance in Gone Girl will turn her into a gong girl). Essie Davis’ performance here is the best performance I’ve seen all year, something that I wasn’t prepared to say about a horror movie. It is a master class in horror acting that deserves to be taught at acting workshops, let alone given an Oscar; Davis’ gives the performance an element of class and believability for what would otherwise be just another haunted house movie.
Initially channelling Tilda Swinton’s performance in We Need to Talk About Kevin, her performance grows as the supernatural elements grow around her, making the entire scenario believable – and therefore completely terrifying. In fact, she’s more successful than Swinton in that she manages to make her character entirely sympathetic, even in the more histrionic moments as the film reaches its all-but-inevitable climax. The fact the Babadook looks like Papa Lazarou from The League of Gentlemen is irrelevant. You’re not scared because of what the boogeyman looks like or does, but by how it is effecting the people onscreen. You don’t fear the Babadook, you fear how it is causing these characters to completely break down mentally (that being said, I wouldn’t want to wake up to find the Babadook knocking on my door).
Newcomer Noah Wieseman also gives a master class in making an inherently annoying character appear likeable to the audience. It’s the best child acting performance I’ve seen in a long time – his bawling at his mother is as terrifying as all the supernatural hogwash that follows. Credit here should be fully given to director Jennifer Kent, as she’s somehow managed to get two outstanding performances out of actors playing two run-of-the-mill archetypes; the annoying son and the depressed widow. Kent manages to stage horror sequences in a way that’s both indebted to the great horror films of the past (without being derivative in a James Wan style) whilst being completely original.
She understands the horror doesn’t lie in the sudden jump scares (the LOUD NOISES are heavily signposted) but in the tension that the scenario creates and how it affects all the characters onscreen. Cinematographer Radek Ladczuk should also be given credit for fully emphasising the depressing state of Australian suburbia. At face value, the family home looks like any other house; yet the cinematography here has a darkened colour palette that makes everything in the house look slightly off, even if it doesn’t immediately call itself to attention. When the Babadook haunts the house you are surprised the house wasn’t haunted already – it’s a depressing shack on the outskirts of town, over the road from acres of nothingness.
The fact I’ve managed to talk about the film without giving too much away is surprising; this is a genuinely effecting film with an unexpected emotional resonance. It’s terrifying when it needs to be and contains the best acting performance I’ve seen so far this year from Essie Davis. Arriving at a time when all mainstream horror is rehashing ideas from the past to no avail (although The Babadook’s ending shares an unintentional similarity with another innovative horror inflected classic), The Babadook will likely prove to be a horror movie we will be talking about for years to come.