Is this real life or is this just fantasy? For Amelia, her life has been a living nightmare since the rainy day her husband Oskar drove her to the hospital, heavily pregnant with their first child and entering labour. The car skidded and overturned; Amelia and the baby survived, Oskar did not. A widow with a child, she has struggled to cope, existing rather than living, raising Samuel alone and locking all Oskar’s belongings in the basement, his clothes, his photographs, his violin, consigning him to a past which can never be revisited.
Understandably, Amelia and Sam have never celebrated his actual birthday, instead having a joint party with Sam’s cousin on her birthday, but as the seventh anniversary of Oskar’s death approaches, Sam’s already difficult behaviour is bordering on impossible. Exhausted from the demands on a single parent and her nursing job, lonely and refusing to engage with her sister or her neighbour, she has denied her grief for Oskar for all this time, refusing to discuss him or allow others to mention him in her company.
Amelia needs someone to take care of her as much as Sam needs a mother, something she is no longer capable of being, but still she struggles on without support when he is excluded from school because the teachers feel his behaviour is a danger to the other students. She sits on his bed and reads to him at night, whatever book he chooses, in hopes that if he sleeps she too can enjoy a moment of sleep which she so desperately needs, so she agrees to read a book she doesn’t recall seeing on the shelf before, the sinister Mr Babadook, a volume of veiled threats and harshly shaded caricatures which trigger more nightmares for both of them.
Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, her feature debut is based on the short film Monster she created almost a decade before. A graduate of Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art with a twenty year career as a performer herself including a long stint on police drama Murder Call, it is this experience which has allowed her to draw extraordinary performances from her two leads, Essie Davies (Maggie in the later Matrix films though better known from the television adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap) as Amelia and Noah Wiseman in his first professional role as the troubled and uncontrollable Samuel.
Amelia is obligated to love Sam, but he is not a loveable child, having been brought up by a damaged woman who hides under the covers as though she were a child herself, fearful of the noises in the night, trapped in a house drained of colour, the blacks and greys of their lives matching the storybook from which Sam believes the Babadook has stepped to claim him and his mother, crafting weapons and booby-traps around the house to protect them.
Wearing the strained mask of happiness at work and for Sam and her sister, Amelia looks through windows and sees other people’s lives, longing for the mundane simplicity they enjoy, wishing to be normal. Their elderly neighbour Mrs Roach (Barbara West) tries to reach out to them but she rejects her as firmly as her only ally at the hospital, Robbie, Daniel Henshall in a role far removed from convicted serial killer he played in Snowtown.
Roman Polanski’s Repulsion travelling down David Lynch’s Lost Highway to arrive at Mulholland Drive, it is a film as much about grief, depression and isolation as it is a horror, all smoke and shadow and lenses slipping out of focus, how it changes people and must be fought and beaten every day. The film is slightly overlong but manages to be relentlessly tense and creepy with a palpable sense of danger to both Amelia and Sam right until the final frames, though it is never clear whether it is to each other or from an external force or something that has always been there waiting beneath the stairs, in the closet, beneath the bed.