You could say there are two very different stories being told in “The Babadook”. But over time you’ll notice that the two are cleverly and shrewdly interwoven giving us something well beyond a run-of-the-mill horror film. It’s an intelligent film made with a tiny $2 million budget and actually completed thanks to a Kickstarter campaign. The end result turned heads at Sundance and it is finally getting deserved respect from a wider audience.
The film was written and directed by Jennifer Kent and found its roots in a short film Kent made in 2005. The story follows a widowed single mother named Amelia (Essie Davis) and her young son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). The two have been alone since the death of her husband and his father. Samuel hasn’t adapted well to his fatherless home. He’s a lonely boy with a number of behavioral issues which cause problems at school and home. On top of that Samuel is haunted by dreams of a terrifying monster and his belief in it causes his behavior to be even more erratic and troubling.
But it could be said the film is more about Amelia. She is an earnest and loving mother who struggles to conceal her own sorrows and burdens for the sake of her son. Kent’s vision and Davis’ performance create a disconsolate portrayal of a woman drowning in her circumstances. We get close looks at how her situation effects every social and potentially romantic relationship she has. We easily sympathize with Amelia which makes the sharp turns in the second half of the film all the more devastating.
One night things take an even worse turn. Samuel asks Amelia to read him a pop-up children’s book titled “Mr. Babadook”. It’s a grisly story about a creature who consumes those made aware of his existence. Samuel is convinced Babadook is real leading to even more troubling behavior. A series of creepy events begin happening around their house which Amelia first attributes to her son. But soon she too comes face-to-face with the question of Babadook’s existence. It’s here that the lines between reality and the supernatural are blurred.
“The Babadook” is a creepy movie but not in the conventional sense. Jennifer Kent pointed to movies like “The Shining”, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, and even “Nosferatu” as influences and you can see them in her technique and presentation. And “The Babadook” does indeed employ several familiar horror film devices. But she uses such a careful and strategic blend of classic haunted house scares, boogie man frights, and the film’s most potent element – psychological horror. It all works to near perfection. Adding to the movie’s uniqueness is the wonderfully eerie use of sound and the minimalist approach to special effects. These things are vital to giving the film its own satisfying aesthetic.
But the main reason that the horror works is because of the characters. The first half of the film sets them up and connects them to the audience. By the second half we are so invested in Amelia and Samuel and their deteriorating circumstances that we are desperately rooting for a happy resolution. It’s this connection with the characters that so many horror films fail to establish. Davis gives an inspired performance and conveys such motherly authenticity through her character. Young Noah Wiseman is heartbreaking and deserves a lot of credit. His character transforms over time and he manages it so well in his performance. These two are the lifeblood of the film.
In the end I found myself smitten with “The Babadook’s” smarts and craftiness. The story is rich with raw emotion and a genuine eeriness. There is always a tinge of uncertainty which constantly has you questioning what you’re seeing. I like that kind of interpretive challenge. This isn’t the type of film that will ever be considered a classic, but it’s well written and well made which I believe earns Jennifer Kent attention as a filmmaker to keep your eye on. She certainly has a winner with this film.
One thing I’ve noticed that separates quality horror films that are actually scary with cheap, shoddy, run-of-the-mill type horror pictures is their stylistic approach to scarring their audience. The latter tends to rely either on jump scares or excessive gore effects, i.e. shock tactics, to convey any sense of foreboding or fear, and as a result the horror tends to feel cheap, exploitative, and tiresome well before the film concludes. The former tend to focus more on instilling dread and a slow-burning sense of uneasiness before revealing the true horrors being teased earlier in the story. Classic horror tends to be about establishing and setting up a foreboding *atmosphere* rather than things that just go “Boo!”
Quality films like The Shining, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and Alien come to mind. I’m hoping The Babadook mimics that style to a extent.
I absolutely love your first paragraph. For a while the horror genre was nothing but a parade of films depending on those cheap scares, gore, and shocks. Then we started to see a shift. But there have been several movies that have tried a smarter approach but couldnt pull it off. The Badadook gets it done in a similar way that The Conjuring did. It was really well done.
Ah, well I thought the Conjuring was kinda an example of the cheap scares-type…but I’m sure we’d agree on most stuff (!), and I’m getting good vibes from the Babadook trailer 😀
Good review Keith. A solid horror movie that works more so as a character-study, than an actual piece of scary fiction. Still though, it’s a good piece.
You’re right. The “horror” is actually one small element of the story. There truly is a lot more going on.
Youre totally right about the film being more about the mum than the kid. I really liked that about it
Me too man. They fake us out early on and it becomes clear that she is the focus about midway through the picture. It makes things a lot more interesting.
I know I would like it if I were brave enough to watch it. I gave up horror movies about a decade ago. They affect me too much. This looks great. Maybe during the day so it wears off by dark. 😉
Ha Ha. I completely understand Cindy. My wife simply says “nope” and I’m on my own. She doesnt do any horror movies. I did get her into The Walking Dead though and now she loves it. Of course it could be said that it is more about humanity and society than zombies.
As for The Babadook, it is much more psychological than anything else. Very well made and I love that a female director comes in and delivers the best horror movie of the year!
I do like thrillers and yes to female directors. Okay, okay, thrilling psychological is one of my top favorite kinds of films. I’ll do it. 😉
Awesome! Anxious to hear your thoughts!!!
Normally, these are the kinds of films I avoid. I just don’t care for the genre, and I have an issue with all this demon/ghost crap that pollutes film these days…but the reviews and reactions to this have me intrigued. Nice review.
Thanks man. And I assure you, this is beyond those demon possession, haunted house hooks that we see so often. The film actually looks at something a lot more intriguing.
This is exciting news Keith. Really is. I look forward to diving into this, despite my apprehension over Rotten Tomatoes’ near-perfect 98% rating. 😉
It’s these kinds of things that make it difficult to keep my expectations reasonable.
I will say that the film is nothing monumental or genre changing. Its simply smart and it dives into more interesting areas than the normal run-of-the-mill horror flick. I think that’s what makes this stand out. Home you like it.
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Great review. However, I wasn’t a fan of this film. I refer to it as “babadookie”. It was sooo slow moving. And I found the characters slightly annoying (mainly the son) which made it hard to care about the outcome. I’ll stick to slow builds like the shining and the exorcist, which are superior to the babadook.
I certainly wouldn’t put Babadook in the same category as The Shining but I did appreciate it and particularly the relationship between mother and son. In a way the horror to a back seat to the psychological breakdown/motherly love conflict.