Review: The Babadook (2014)

It’s hard to isolate yourself from the conversation that surrounds a film, away from the hype and the expectations that influence your take on it. For a film like The Babadook, Jennifer Kent’s Australian horror film that has been touted as the best horror film of the new century, it’s hard to watch without thinking of those very high expectations that have been set for it. Thus, it’s likely the inability to set aside my expectations for the film that leads to my slight disappointment with it.

It’s certainly a creepy movie, with an ingenious central monster, but it’s hardly the scariest thing I’ve ever seen, let alone the scariest movie I’ve watched in the past three months. It has a strong performance at its centre and an emotionally potent motivation for the monster, but its subtext is so blatant that it threatens to become text and turn the whole film into a therapy session. I like a horror movie that conjures a monster that reflects its characters’ insecurities, but The Babadook’s refusal to simply let its monster exist in that terrifying nether realm of nightmare holds it back from being great.

The Babadook is the name of the monster at the centre of the film’s terrifying night scenes, but most of the film centres around Amelia, (Essie Davis), an exasperated widow raising her troubled six-year-old, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Amelia’s husband died the night she gave birth to Samuel, so she has always tied that unresolved trauma to her fraught relationship with her son. Add to this the fact that Samuel is a genuinely exhausting child, always screaming and making weapons and hurting kids at school and refusing to sleep, and it’s not hard to see why Amelia is at the end of her rope. This parent-child relationship makes it clear where the film is going with its horror and how the boogeyman is just a stand-in for the resentment she feels towards her son. See what I said about subtext threatening to be text? With The Babadook, the real horror is the mother’s resentment towards her son, not the monster that terrorizes them at night.

Which is kind of a drag. Amelia’s relationship with Samuel is interesting in its own right, but it’s not very original. It’s more of a combination of a heroine from an early Roman Polanski film and Jack Torrance from The Shining. This stuff has been done before, and it’s been both more lurid and more convincing, even if Davis gives a very strong performance as Amelia. The film’s greatest strengths lie in those scenes with the Babadook, or Mister Babadook as he’s described in the storybook that announces his presence in the family home. Ramrod straight with a long black Victorian overcoat and a tophat, his hands outstretched at his sides like Nosferatu or the alien in the ventilation shaft, Mister Babadook is a wondrous, terrifying creation.

Mister Babadook first shows up in the storybook that mysteriously finds its way onto Samuel’s shelf one night. Amelia proceeds to read the story, unaware that it’s too late once she’s read the story’s haunting rhymes aloud and embedded the monster into Samuel’s already overactive imagination. The animations alone are scary and imaginative in the pop-up book, showing a troubling shadow creature entering the bedroom at night without invitation and refusing to leave. Jennifer Kent knows how to overlay the provocative images with troubling sound design to create something haunting. She also knows how to shoot and edit scenes to produce a good amount of tension, lingering on shadows and hiding things out of the frame, letting the sound design insinuate the horrors lurking in the night. She certainly isn’t lacking in technical skill.

But Mister Babadook is almost an afterthought for her. There is one scene where he finally arrives in the bedroom, crawling across the ceiling in jerking motions, crying his name in his raspy, croaking voice. The filmmakers used stop-motion animation to bring Mister Babadook to life and it lends the creature an unnerving, otherworldly quality. But why then didn’t the filmmakers trust in that otherworldly essence and allow more of the film to rest on Mister Babadook’s shoulders? The scenes of Mister Babadook are few and far between, and they’re not as scary as they ought to be. Kent cuts them just when the tension is becoming unbearable. She should’ve kept the tension up, never allowing us a moment’s rest, faking us out and letting us feel that Mister Babadook truly is never going away, because if the point of a horror movie isn’t to terrify the audience and to sustain that terror, I don’t know what it is.

There is much to love in The Babadook. Jennifer Kent created a genuinely inventive, terrifying movie monster, one that could have been a pantheon creation, but her mind and her movie are focused on other—more domestic, less fantastic—things. Dramas about domestic trauma can be interesting, but aren’t as tantalizing to me as a top-hatted boogeyman who lives in a storybook, and it’s sad to get too much of one and not enough of the other.

6 out of 10

The Babadook (2014, Australia)

Written and directed by Jennifer Kent; starring Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West, and Ben Winspear.