The 9th annual Toronto After Dark film festival saved the best for last this year with its phenomenal Closing Gala film The Babadook by first-time director Jennifer Kent. Delivering big scares on a modest budget, and containing at its core a genuinely moving story about a mother and son coping with the tragic death of their husband and father, the film is an intimate masterpiece that works on a number of levels both literal and metaphorical. It also introduces horror fans to one of the creepiest and most original movie monsters to come along in a while – the persistent yet elusive Mr. Babadook, who is represented in a number of different physical forms throughout the course of the film thanks to some incredible practical effects and a subtle yet haunting design. While some may feel that the film exhibits too much restraint when it comes to the titular monster, I would argue that this is one of its greatest assets, showing us just enough to plant seeds of terror in our minds without losing the mystique of the character along the way.
The film tells the story of Amelia (Essie Davis), a widowed single-mother who struggles to cope with the untimely death of her husband while also facing the daily grind of raising their troubled 7-year old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Sam exhibits a tendency to act out at school, frequently talking about a “monster” and building makeshift weapons in preparation for its attack. One night, he picks a pop-up storybook from his shelf entitled “Mister Babadook” which he begins reading with his mom, telling the story of an evil presence that cannot be vanquished once you let him into your house. After quickly realizing the twisted nature of the story, Amelia stops reading but Sam’s interest has already been sparked, and before long the two begin experiencing sounds and visions around their house that correlate with passages from the book. Things spiral out of control as the Babadook works its way into their lives with the intention of causing further destruction, and as they struggle to exorcise the monster it becomes clear indeed that “you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”
This is one of those rare films that strives to elevate the genre of horror, incorporating an element of human drama which not only increases our sympathy and pathos for the leading characters, but in this particular case, lends greater meaning to the monster itself, producing a deeper metaphorical reading of its presence in their lives. The film forgoes cheap jump-scares and excessive gore in favour of genuine old-school horror, delivering several dread-inducing sequences that draw from our most basic fears as children and parents ourselves, without the need for overused shock tactics. Kent displays a welcomed confidence in her storytelling technique as well, even going so far as to reveal much of her hand to the audience early on through the disturbing children’s pop-up book that sits at the centre of the story, providing a system of foreshadowing that replaces the fear of total uncertainty with a heightened suspense as the viewer instead tries to anticipate precisely when and how certain key events will take place. The style works to the film’s advantage in the end, with the book offering a degree of childish innocence that renders the malicious intentions of the monster all the more terrifying and resonant, as the simplistic two-dimensional cartoon images and rhyming couplets worm their way into our minds and set the stage for the much darker and more vulgar realities that follow.
It is not often that a film with so strong a vision is executed so pitch-perfectly, and a great deal of praise is certainly owed to Essie Davis for her fearless and haunting lead performance. Carrying the weight of the film entirely on her shoulders, Davis fully commits to a role that is both emotionally devastating and at times morally reprehensible, exploring the darkest fears of a mother trying to protect her son from a force that she can’t control or understand. As she slowly unravels both physically and emotionally we begin to see the monster grow like a disease within her, despite the fact that she still conveys a deeply-rooted sense of tragic remorse, reminding us of the battle that continually wages inside of her. Davis’ performance is highly nuanced and extremely unnerving to see, enhanced even further by her young supporting actor Noah Wiseman who displays some true talent despite his age, and transcends the traditional role of children in horror films that are often positioned as either deliberately creepy or otherwise largely useless and annoying.
Easily one of the scariest films of the year, The Babadook took home a number of After Dark “Specialty Category” awards including Best Director (Jennifer Kent), Best Leading Actress (Essie Davis), Best Monster/Creature (The Babadook), Scariest Film and Best Trailer. It is without a doubt a must-see for horror fans who are looking for a sharp and effective trip into the darkest recesses of our unconscious fears.
For a full list of this year’s Toronto After Dark award winners, click here.