Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook is an interesting take on the “haunting” sub-genre of horror. It tells the story of Amelia, who was widowed by a horrible car crash on their way to the hospital to have their son. Seven years later, her son Samuel is a social outcast who suffers from night terrors, and she is haunted by images of her dead husband and her desire for companionship. After finding a disturbing book in their house, a presence begins to haunt their every waking moment.
Like the best horror, this film is deliberate and slow. The disturbing tone is established early on, but not overtly so. In the beginning, their house has the creepy feel that many old homes share, with it’s creaking doors and a sinister basement. It is made clear that Amelia ignores Samuels many developmental issues, choosing to take him out of school when the headmaster suggests he be given a personal aid after bringing a homemade crossbow to campus. We also find that she chooses to have his birthday two weeks early with his cousin because she doesn’t want to celebrate anything on the day her husband died. In fact, Amelia’s obvious failings as a parent before the haunting are the part that personally unsettled me the most, and work well within the overarching narrative.
That is not to discount the horror scenes, but once they start the quality gets much more inconsistent. The Babadook itself is an interesting in concept, which I don’t wish to discuss here in fear of spoiling the film. It’s design is unique enough, and the choice to use practical effects and stop motion to bring the creature to life instead of CGI gives it a real weight that not many modern horror movies are able to capture. Unfortunately, though it’s presence is horrifying, the monster does not look very impressive on screen. Luckily, Kent was smart enough to keep it mostly obscured in shadows, having only two or three brief scenes of the monster in full profile. Speaking of shadows, the film uses them spectacularly. As the monster gets more powerful, the house gets more infested by the them, with some rooms becoming almost fully enveloped by the end of the film.
The performances are mostly good, with Essie Davis stealing the show as Amelia. Despite this being his first film, Noah Wiseman ends up being a pretty natural actor, although it was difficult to tell whether some of his more strange line reads were intentional or just a limitation of his range. The sound design really shines, and despite how heavy much of the ambiance is the film doesn’t use the popular pop scare as often as many of it’s contemporaries. There are some effects that really stuck out in my mind as really horrifying, like the sound Samuels teeth make when he grinds them in his sleep, or the progressively louder bangs the Babadook makes. Despite all this, though, there are many noticeable flaws.
Perhaps the biggest is the inclusion of a love interest for the main character. He has maybe three scenes, all of which could have been cut. It could be argued that Amelias seemingly irrational behavior in the last scene he is in caused him to lose interest in her, but this is never established at all and he simply never shows up in the film again. Despite the otherwise excellent sound design, the croaking way the Babadook says it’s name is distractingly awful, and ruined a few scenes that would have otherwise been decently scary. Samuel is also shown to be an adept engineer, setting up traps in the basement for the monsters he dreams about and crafting a catapult as well as the undermentioned crossbow. Although they do end up using all of them, it all happens in maybe two scenes, making his role in the final confrontation feel extremely anticlimactic. Ultimately, the film is decent. Not a horror masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, and more cynical viewers will probably be unimpressed by the scares. As an introduction to the genre, it works pretty well, and there is plenty to like if you are willing to overlook a few flaws.