Single, widowed mother Amelia is having some trouble. Her 6-year-old son, Sam, is becoming angry, violent and increasingly scared about monsters, going so far as to bring a homemade weapon to school. He’s having trouble sleeping and makes her check for monsters under the bed and in the closet every night before his bedtime story. Amelia tries to cope as best she can, but when her son pulls an anonymous, unfamiliar tome off the bookshelf called “Mister Babadook”, everything gets exponentially worse. Amelia tries to get rid of the book, but it won’t be that easy to get rid of the darkest ghoul in all of Seussville.
If you think this is bad, you don’t even want to know what he did to the Lorax.
You notice two things within the first five minutes of the film. The first is that Amelia is already close to, if not already leaning precariously over, the edge of some sort of breaking point. The second is that there seems to be an emotional disconnect between herself and her son, Sam. Both are clearly wounded by the loss of Sam’s father, an event that occurred before Sam was even born, but the even has non-the-less left an indelible imprint on both their lives. They don’t talk about the man, and this lack of communication is just one example of the many anxieties affecting this small family, anxieties that appear to grow so out of control that they finally take on a physical presence in the form of the boogieman known as Babadook.
The film is a bit of a slow burn. For about the first half it presents itself more as a psychological horror rather than a supernatural one, with the only mention of the Babadook being within a few pages of a wonderfully disturbing children’s book. Where most other horror films would want to get you to identify with the victim, The Babadook tries to force you to identify with a very troubled woman on the brink, one whose perpetual grief may or may not be transitioning into outright rage. It is only after the halfway point that the Babadook itself makes any kind of physical appearance, but by the end you’re left wondering if the demon is even real or just a product of two very troubled minds.
Mummy is having a very bad day, kid. Maybe just go back to bed?
Considering the subject matter, the movie all but relies on the performances of the two leads and both do a commendable job of rising to the occasion. Essie Davis is fascinating to watch as she slowly goes from the brink of coping, all the way to the edge of crazy-town. You can tell that this was a woman who was damn well committed to the role. Young Noah Wiseman is similarly intense and I was impressed with how he went from a character who could very well be described as one of the most obnoxious kids put to film, to a young boy you could easily feel sympathetic towards.… Or at least maybe marginally sympathetic towards. I still found the little bugger quite annoying by the final reel to be honest…. Can you tell I don’t have kids?
Pictured: Hell Child
My one real qualm with the film was with the ending. I won’t spoil it here, but they left it a bit too, shall we say ambiguous for my taste. I know that’s popular to do in horror films (and in other genres too, now that I thing about it), but I think I would have preferred it if they had just decided on one solid outcome and run with it. It’s not a deal-breaker by any means, but just my personal preference.
The Babadook is not just a film filled with nothing but a collection of jump scares. It strives for a deeper exploration of dread, and manages to be unsettling in its portrayal of its psychological horrors as well as its physical manifestations. For a parent, I’m sure this film is terrifying. It takes a lot of seemingly normal fears and experiences their children might have- like monsters under the bed, trouble at school, tikes being uncooperative in general and parents projecting their own fears onto their kids – and then ratchets them up to 11 and likely makes them wonder if any of it would have brought them to a similar breaking point. But even overlooking some of the psychological aspects, the film is still works as a very effective “monster movie.” It more than once left me feeling creeped out by the visuals alone. The story is strong, if not compact, the visuals are striking (and very consistent from the in-film ‘book’ to ‘real life.’). Overall, it’s a beautiful and eerie homage to a more ‘classic’ style of horror movie, one that makes the viewer look less to the horrors of the outside world, and more to the horror that can lie within. Definitely something that should be seen at least once.
The Babadook is available on a variety of streaming services.
The Babadook is also available on DVD and Bluray.