The Babadook sits alongside other films that delve into the topic of childhood boogeymen such as Darkness Falls (2003) and Boogeyman (2005). These are films founded in the modern school of horror created by the A Nightmare on Elm Street sequels, which mandated the provision of a line-up of teenagers and series of surreal novelty despatches at regular intervals. By contrast, The Babadook belongs more to a school of psychological horror if it has an ancestor it is surely Roman Polanskis Repulsion (1965), which follows the mental disintegration of a woman as she remains locked inside her apartment where her sanity begins to crumble to the point she has a difficulty distinguishing between reality and nightmare. You could compare The Babadook to a film that came out a few months earlier with the mainstream-released Annabelle (2014) both feature a sinisterly imbued inanimate object usually intended for children that brings an entity into a home with intentions to claim the soul of a child but where Annabelle was no more than a series of processed pop-up shocks, The Babadook exists as an emotional journey.
On a pure plot description level, The Babadook could easily have played out as a formula horror film the difference all comes in the emphasis that Jennifer Kent places on the characters. She puts far more into establishing their everyday lives and concerns than any other supernatural horror of recent memory. This is a real world rooted horror film where the stresses are as much the supernatural menace of the show as Essie Daviss dealing with her problem son, the hostile unwelcome of his school and her sister-in-law, the problems in the lack of sleep, loss of work hours and so on. It is over half the film before we get any appearance of the Babadook, for instance. When the creature does finally emerge, its appearances are unworldly and unsettling.
On one hand, The Babadook is a film about a childhood monster made real; an equal reading of the film could just as easily be that it is something inside the crumbling mind of a stressed-out mother. Much of the later sections of the film see Essie Davis in a stare of near mental collapse due to insomnia and fear. I wondered how much of the film was Jennifer Kents own story although apparently it is not autobiographical and she is not a mother who raised a problem child. Nevertheless, this is very much a womans perspective horror film it would have emerged as a very different (and probably far less effective) film with a male director, one suspects that charts the isolation, desperation, madness, fears and stress that someone goes through. Kent is also not afraid to take the film into dark places and have Essie Davis venting anger and hatred at her own child an almost taboo subject for Hollywood who venerates the family ideal above almost all else. The tenuous passover the film reaches where the Babadook is tentatively imprisoned in the cellar and life returns to a semblance of normalcy could just as easily read as a metaphor for dealing with these violent thoughts and mental illness that the darkness remains caged and controlled for now but lurks ever-present.
Essie Davis is an actress of watery looks and fragile shyness. She was apparently a classmate of Jennifer Kent in acting school. Davis has played in everything from Girl with the Pearl Earring (2003), Code 46 (2003), Charlottes Web (2006) and Australia (2008) to the two Matrix sequels without becoming one of those instantly recognisable actresses. She is not someone you would immediately choose as a leading lady. That however is part of the effectiveness of her performance. Kent casts her in a deceptive way, allowing her to play mousy and quiet for much of the show. However, as we get in, the emotional range she is required to open up and deliver throughout the course of the film proves be extraordinary.
The result emerges as one of the most assured and controlled genre films, let alone directorial debuts, that have come this way in some time. Jennifer Kent has been receiving accolades all around the world everywhere the film has screened. In one of the more bizarre twists, a couple of years later The Babadook became a gay icon.