Today’s movie goers have become accustomed to horror flicks that produce derivative, cheese-ball writing, excessively loud sound effects and cliché monster reveals. Just when good horror seemed a thing of the past, Australian first time film director and writer Jennifer Kent nails it with The Babadook, bringing homage to classic horror films like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Without relying on cheap jump scares and basic tricks to deliver thrills like more recent scary movies Annabelle and Ouiji, this film creates a heavily unnerving, truly terrifying atmosphere while more prominently conveying psychological elements such as depression, isolation, helplessness—stuff that actually scares people—to propel this character driven dark tale.
The Babadook tells the story of grieving widow, Amelia (Essie Davis) and her hyper-imaginative son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who has “significant behavioral problems” and, oh yeah, constructs weaponry in his spare time to protect his mother against the monster he believes is coming to kill them both. Amelia finds it difficult to love her son, who was born the night of her husband’s tragic death, and while still struggling to accept the loss of her husband as well as control her son’s disobedient monster antics, she finds herself at her wit’s end.
It isn’t until reading a disturbing storybook called “Mister Babadook,” that appears on her son’s shelf one night that Amelia too begins to feel the presence of a dark, malevolent entity in their home. Though she tries to remain rational, destroying the creepy pop-up book and chalking her son’s obsessive talk of the monster (which he now refers to as the Babadook) up to anxiety, when the book returns on her doorstep, this time re-written with violent, graphic images of her own death, she can no longer deny something is indeed preying on them in their own home, and fears she is responsible for letting this evil in. Little does Amelia nor her battle-ready son know, “You can’t get rid of the Babadook.”
With a shiver of pleasantly unpleasant chills, even after the second time watching, there are three things about this film that are undeniable. 1) It is downright creepy 2) It severely messes with your head, so I suggest forcing friends, family or even people you don’t like very much to watch it just so you have someone to discuss it with, and 3) You can kiss sleep goodbye, at least for a few nights. Also, you most likely will never be able to look at the pairing of a trench coat and top hat in the same way again.
More seriously though, The Babadook resurrects the essence of “true” horror by getting a number of things right. Most effectively, Kent knows how to build tension in little ways to the point where viewers can’t help but squirm while watching. Besides having an original storyline driven by strong character development, this film will consistently leave its viewers unsettled and on edge with its subtle cinematography and eerily chilling, but not over-reaching effects.
Another aspect that deserves applause is the brilliant acting and mother-son relationship portrayed by Davis and Wiseman in this film. What some people will immediately retort is how annoying Wiseman’s character, seven-year-old Samuel is, with his abundant, shrill shrieks for his mother to watch his magic tricks and his frequent delusional fits about the monster and his deceased father. However, that’s the point.
Sam’s relentlessly annoying behavior is crucial in driving the overall tension and discomforting vibe of the film. As the viewer, you are supposed to feel as rattled and completely over-the-bullshit as Amelia is, so when the moments of real horror happen, you don’t have a single wit about you. I believe young little Wiseman executes this challenge expertly. Frankly, what I believe is even more unfortunate to miss out on is how endearing, courageous and witty the character of Sam is, particularly when he tells his mom “I promise to protect you if you promise to protect me,” and when he boasts over his handmade weapons, declaring “I’ll kill the monster when it comes! I’ll smash its head in!”
Davis also does a fantastic job making Amelia’s battle to love and protect her son yet wrestle with her own demons a believable one. As her character goes through meek, defeated moments to moments of telling off the rich bitch mom at a little kid’s birthday party, to moments where her fierce maternal instincts prevail—you cannot help but root for this woman.
This is why Kent’s creation is much more than a story about a monster, but a story of how a mother’s grief, bottled up and denied for seven years, takes on the personification of an evil entity. The monster is a well-written metaphor for her depression, something she cannot “get rid of”, but simply has to make room for. This is most pointedly noted in the storybook, as the monster warns “the more you deny, the stronger I get,” which very clearly personifies depression and how it consumes its victims’ life.
Overall, The Babadook is a flat-out creepy film that delivers authentic, bone-chilling horror rather than jump scares and other weak tactics that saturate most of today’s horror scene, while boasting a clever, thought-provoking plot with genuine characters. Simply put, if you are only a fan of cheap frights and senseless plots, you may find this film over your head. If you are longing for a wicked smart horror film, you will be extremely satisfied with The Babadook.