I’m not so well-versed in the horror genre, which seems to consist mainly of stale Hollywood retreads or obscure and often foreign low-budget gems. The Babadook falls distinctly into the latter category. It’s an Australian movie that went straight to video on demand, but one that has thematic ambitions beyond your average Saw or Paranormal Activity franchises. As a result of its original approach, it has picked up an abnormal amount of buzz over the months, recalling other artistic horror success stories like Sweden’s Let The Right One In and Spain’s The Orphanage.
Those two movies are apt comparisons, as The Babadook boasts extraordinary craft that you just won’t see in most American horror movies, besides rare examples like The Conjuring. But even that hit didn’t have the kind of freshness that director Jennifer Kent exhibits here. The movie may still stick to some story tropes that horror can never seem to avoid, but it’s focus on internal terror over arguably-easier jump scares puts it in an upper echelon within the genre.
The story revolves around single-mother Amelia and her mischievous seven year old, Samuel. Amelia’s husband was killed in a car accident on the way to the hospital to give birth to Samuel. The boy is well aware of the tragedy that his existence symbolizes, though he can’t possibly realize how his constant presence serves as a constant reminder to Amelia of what she has lost. When Amelia finds a very ominous children’s book named “Mister Babadook” in Samuel’s room, it triggers a series of creepy happenings and psychological breakdowns that threaten to destroy her, both physically and emotionally.
Despite the name of the movie, it’s the relationship between Amelia and Samuel that takes a central position over the narrative. However, everything is so tightly woven together (intentionally so) with the Babadook plot that it’s impossible to separate the two. As Amelia becomes more and more unhinged by the stress of juggling a troubled child, the trauma of her husband’s death and now the constant reappearance of this spooky storybook, it becomes difficult for audiences to identify the exact source of their fear. What’s more frightening: the idea of Mister Babadook appearing, or the idea that Amelia’s unstable behavior will traumatize Samuel?
Though I can’t claim to be particularly knowledgable in this area, I don’t believe I’ve seen a better written horror movie. Perhaps because this isn’t a movie made in the American studio system, the overall point of the film isn’t simply to be entertaining, though it certainly does entertain. Rather, the film works as a brilliant allegory for dealing with trauma. Since it works so well on a metaphorical level, the film’s ending winds up far more satisfying than the vast majority of inert climaxes of most modern horror movies.
The movie is masterful in all other areas. Both central actors, Essie Davis as Amelia and Noah Wiseman as Samuel, are fantastic. It’s starkly shot but in a way that really highlights the barren, oppressive life Amelia has been forced into since her husband’s death. Maybe most impressive to me was the score and sound design, which kept me in a sustained state of unease throughout, as the sinister tunes constantly recall the possibility of danger always just under the surface. Meanwhile, Mister Babadook’s “call”, which will likely become an iconic modern horror moment, is one of the more disturbing noises recently put to film.
On the outside, The Babadook is an incredibly simple film that happens to look and sound exceptional, though in reality it has more depth than its tropes would lead you to believe. While many horror films feel familiar because the formula has been done to death, Kent’s film feels familiar due to the channeling of universal emotions and the harnessing of the fears we may feel every day in our real lives. If you like scary movies, I can’t recommend The Babadook enough. If you don’t particularly like horror, welcome to my life, but still give it a shot.
Score: 4 out of 5