D: Jennifer Kent / 93m
Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McElhinney, Daniel Henshall, Barbara West, Benjamin Winspear, Tim Purcell
Six-year-old Samuel (Wiseman) has a deep-rooted fear of monsters. Each night he makes sure his mother, Amelia (Davis) checks under the bed and inside his wardrobe to ensure nothing lurks in his room. Most nights, though, Samuel’s fear leads to his sleeping with his mother; this in turn leads to Amelia being constantly tired. With his fear of monsters becoming obsessive – Samuel is convinced they’re real and constructs weapons to kill them – his behaviour begins to have an isolating effect. His school doesn’t know how to deal with him, and Amelia’s sister, Claire (McElhinney) is sufficiently worried to want to keep her daughter away from him.
One night, Samuel chooses a book for Amelia to read to him at bedtime. The book is called The Babadook, and shows a menacing creature trying to prey on a young child; strangely, the last few pages are blank. Amelia is disturbed by the book, but not as much as Samuel. His behaviour worsens as he refers to the Babadook as being real. Unable to cope at work, and struggling with Samuel’s “acting up”, Amelia rips the book into pieces and throws it into the trash. Soon after, there is a loud knocking at the front door. Amelia finds the book on the doorstep, its pages reassembled, and with the last few pages now depicting her murdering their dog, and then Samuel before taking her own life. Horrified, this time she burns the book.
Amelia also starts to receive phone calls where a voice chants “ba-BA-ba Dook! Dook! Dook!” Then one night she sees the creature in her room. Terrified, but unsure of what to do, Amelia attempts to carry on as usual but Samuel becomes increasingly wary of her. When he has a fit in the back of their car, she keeps him off school, but her attempts to look after him are hampered by sudden mood swings and angry outbursts. Samuel becomes convinced she’s been possessed by the Babadook, and tells her so. And soon, the book’s added illustrations start to come true…
Expanded from Kent’s debut short, Monster (2005), The Babadook is an occasionally chilling examination of childhood terror and adult paranoia. It opens with the accident that claims the life of Oskar (Winspear), Amelia’s husband. This pivotal moment is at the heart of Amelia’s troubles, her unresolved grief keeping her from moving on with her life and hindering her from properly dealing with Samuel’s fear of monsters. Of the two, she is the more susceptible to the attentions of the Babadook, and so it proves, the creature targeting the weaker inhabitant of the house. It’s a frightening scenario for any child: to see their parent turning into the very creature they’re most afraid of, and it’s this very real terror that the movie exploits so effectively.
However, the concept of the Babadook itself is less successful. As the latest boogeyman to hit our screens, its look a combination of German Expressionism and Freddy Krueger’s favourite manicure, the creature is kept hidden for the most part, Kent preferring to use Oskar as its more user-friendly incarnation. This decision is a wise one on the writer/director’s part, as when the Babadook does appear in the flesh, the nightmarish quality of the book’s rendering of it is undermined, and there’s just too much of a resemblance to Conrad Veidt in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). (There’s also a moment when the Babadook, hidden in the darkness of Amelia’s bedroom, extends its arms in a wing-like effect; it’s meant to be terrifying but instead is puzzling as there’s no follow up.) Used largely as a shock effect, the Babadook isn’t quite as scary as might be expected, and Kent doesn’t do full justice to the opportunities the creature could have afforded.
The Babadook is more effective, however, as a study of one woman’s extreme mental breakdown. Taking the death of her husband as a starting point, Amelia’s inability to cope is more understandable. There’s a scene with her sister where Amelia admits she doesn’t talk about Oskar’s death but it’s still a source of pain; it’s clear from this that she’s never properly dealt with the feelings and emotions that have developed over the years since he died (there is an added level of heartache to Oskar’s death: he was driving Amelia to the hospital so she could give birth to Samuel when the accident happened). With Samuel’s seventh birthday fast approaching, and his insistence on the reality of monsters – in particular the Babadook – Amelia’s descent into murderous psychosis is a credible alternative to the idea of a creature in the shadows. To back this up, Amelia is shown in various fugue states, and her mood swings revolve around items belonging to Oskar, or Samuel’s own need for reassurance and comfort. As she clings to the past and deflects the concerns of the present, her grip on reality loosens to the point where her mania is all-encompassing, and where any lucid moments are short-lived.
In this context, the Babadook is an obvious extension of Amelia’s mania, but the script calls for a more traditional showdown, though even here Kent can’t resist throwing a twist into the mix, and the movie ends by creating a fresh mystery (viewers can decide for themselves just what it all means in relation to what’s gone before). With its drab, murky interiors and deep shadows, Amelia and Samuel’s home is yet another movie location where the lighting is largely ineffectual (or never used), and there’s a conveniently placed kitchen window that allows Amelia to view the Babadook in their neighbour’s home (and which violates the creature’s own mythology for the sake of a cheap scare). Unable to resist the inclusion of some standard horror tropes – bumps in the night, the wardrobe door that was shut and is later mysteriously open – Kent’s script also offers up some very minor subplots that aren’t developed fully, and keeps its secondary characters firmly in the background. Away from the script, Kent directs with a confidence that stands her in good stead when the focus is on the relationship between Amelia and Samuel, but less so when she’s trying to inject some terror into the proceedings.
If you’re someone who rarely watches horror movies, and really this is more of a domestic drama with horror themes attached, then it’s likely you’ll find The Babadook quite disturbing. However, fans of the genre will find less to celebrate, and may well feel let down by all the hype that’s surrounded the movie since its release. Kent has done a proficient job of expanding her original short film (which is well worth checking out), but the main problem in that version remains here: just what does the Babadook represent, and why?
Rating: 6/10 – uneven, and with too many longueurs holding up the action, The Babadook never quite lives up to its potential; only occasionally scary, and with performances from Davis and Wiseman that don’t resonate or impress as much as they should, this is yet another reminder of how difficult it is nowadays to create a truly terrifying horror movie.