[This is a re-post of my review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. The Babadook opens today in limited release.]
One of the great things about film festivals is that you can go in cold to almost anything. There’s been little to no advertising, and you make choices based partially on what’s available at a certain time and partially on word-of-mouth. Yesterday, I needed to fill in a gap in my schedule, and I remembered two of my friends had seen and liked The Babadook. I didn’t actually ask them what they liked about it or anything at all about the plot. My assumption: That’s a funny title, so I bet it will be a funny movie! And I was oh so very wrong. Writer-director Jennifer Kent has created a thoroughly creepy, nerve-wracking horror film with old-fashioned scare tactics. However, Kent does her job so well that eventually The Babadook burns itself out as it keeps trying to claw away at our nerves.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother trying to raise her hyperactive six-year-old Samuel (Noah Wiseman) who believes monsters are real. She’s also never gotten over the death of her husband, who died in a car accident on the way to take Amelia to the hospital to give birth to Samuel. Her life becomes even harder when she stumbles upon a children’s book called “Mister Babadook”, and reads it to Samuel as a bedtime story. The book tells of a shadowy monster called The Babadook, and then directly threatens the reader with death. From there, dark omens and disturbing events begin to befall the mother and son, and a sleepless Amelia begins to wonder if she can protect Samuel and retain her sanity.
The Babadook is a mixture of haunted house flick, monster movie, and a couple other of horror subgenres I won’t mention in order to avoid spoilers. The larger point is that Kent has created a hybrid picture that attacks the viewer on multiple fronts. The Babadook is the monster whose reach extends beyond the closet, and its wrath manifests in unexpected and terrifying ways. But Kent never rushes the terror, and the dread is palatable throughout the story. Radoslaw Ladczuk’s effective cinematography adds to the moody atmosphere with its heavy use of shadow and stark contrasts. Even when the Babadook isn’t on screen, his unnerving presence is always felt.
An even larger reason for the film’s oppressive spookiness is that no one is coming to help Amelia and Samuel. There are no ghostbusters to call. The Warrens aren’t coming to remove some evil artifact. Tangina Barrons is not going to make this house clear. Furthermore, the book doesn’t have some “By the way, the Babadook’s weakness is…” line. It’s a direct, unequivocal threat. Amelia and Samuel are apparently going to be slaughtered by a mysterious force wearing a top hat because they had the audacity to read a children’s book.
Like other thoughtful horror stories, the monster isn’t just a powerful, malevolent creature. It’s a symbol, and here it represents the dark impulse of a mother who is overwhelmed with guilt. She feels guilty that her husband died driving her to the hospital, and she feels guilty that she resents Samuel. Wiseman does “obnoxious” so well that I was reminded of the Futurama line, “Have you ever tried simply turning off the TV, sitting down with your children, and hitting them?” Amelia wants to do far more than that. The Babadook is evil, but even the consideration of wanting to harm your child is far worse.
But because there’s no release from the threat of the Babadook, the movie becomes exhausting, or at least exhausting for someone like me. I don’t have the hardened nerves of a die-hard horror buff, so for me, The Babadook is 95 minutes of waiting for jump scares and disturbing imagery. Kent isn’t even doing anything revolutionary with regards to setting up the scares. The movie relies on bumps in the night, flickering lights, and other lo-tech but highly effective means of setting the audience on edge. Nevertheless, we can only watch Amelia’s fatigue for so long before we start to share it.
The people I talked to before seeing The Babadook were right: it is a good movie. It’s an incredibly well made horror film, and Kent is superb at getting under the audience’s skin. I can’t deny the level of craft or that the story does have an interesting underlying theme. But more than anything, I was reminded of why I’m not a horror guy, and while I don’t dislike the genre or willfully avoid it, I left The Babadook with mostly jangled nerves and a reminder to ask for slightly more details when making decisions at film festivals.