‘The Babadook’: Australian thriller aims to chill

The Babadook Movie (1)
Australian thriller The Babadook opens at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, Dec. 12

Happy Halloween!

Oh, I’m sorry – is my calendar off? Last week’s dabbling in the vampire genre must have got me into the seasonal mood a little late this year, because Australian thriller The Babadook is coming to Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, Dec. 12, primed to give you late October chills as the dead of winter approaches.

Director William Friedkin claimed recently that he’s “never seen a more terrifying movie” than The Babadook, and distributor IFC Films is giving that claim pride of place in its promotional material. Is it typical hyperbolic ballyhoo, or is Friedkin – whose legendary pea-soup epic The Exorcist never remotely scared me, at least not since its original TV ad campaign – on target?

Amelia (Essie Davis, who deserves an Oscar nomination – really!) is a widow taking care of her six-going-on-seven year old son Samuel (an equally fine Noah Wiseman, who can scream with the best of them) while working at a South Australia nursing home. She’s never recovered from her husband’s death, which occurred on the day Samuel was born: his birthday remains a dark spot on the family calendar, a time of mourning rather than celebration.


Samuel, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a bit of a problem child. A precocious lad with a taste for magic tricks, Sam can’t seem to stay out trouble either at home or at school. He does, however, love his mother deeply – especially when she reads him his nightly bedtime story.

When Amelia finds an illustrated storybook entitled The Babadook at the back of a dusty shelf, she begins reading it to Sam, discovering too late that it’s definitely not age-appropriate. A disturbing tale of a supernatural creature with a limited vocabulary (‘ba-ba-ba, dook-dook-dook’), the book releases said creature from within its pages. Is the monster real – or does it dwell only in Amelia’s tortured psyche and Sam’s vivid imagination?

Echoing themes first explored by Roman Polanski in 1965’s Repulsion (right down to a wall-splitting scene that is surely an intentional tribute), The Babadook is more psychological thriller than straight up chiller. Though it does make a few (unnecessary, in my opinion) concessions to the supernatural horror genre in the late going, it’s primarily the story of a single mom desperately struggling to keep a job, raise a child, and maintain her sanity.

So is the film scary? Well, I’m probably not the best judge of that, as I’m very rarely disturbed by anything I see on screen (other than the occasional well-timed ‘jump scare’). The Babadook does have all the right ingredients, however, and will satisfy all but the most sophomoric of fright flick fans, who will be disappointed at the film’s dearth of grue and gore.

Written and directed in impressive fashion by Jennifer Kent, this is one for folks who favor such frighteners as Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) or Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (2001). If either of those films scared the pants off you, prepare to lose your trews once again with The Babadook.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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