“If it’s in a word or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook”
Jennifer Kent gets it. I mean, she really gets it. The Babadook, her directorial debut which she also wrote, is a hell of a statement. It says a lot. Above all, it says that the horror genre is alive and well…and is in very capable hands.
The Babadook is a heck of a horror movie. And here’s the weird thing about it… It doesn’t reinvent the genre. In fact, it’s not even that original. That’s not a knock on Kent or her film… I actually think that’s what makes it stand out. It takes familiar horror devices (i.e., cliches) and puts its own unique twist on them.
It’s a risky move… But I’d honestly rather not tell you what it’s about. You should see this movie. The short version is that a widowed mother, Amelia (Essie Davis) is raising a kid, Samuel (Noah Wiseman) who means well but has a lot of issues… One day, a mysterious and downright spooky book appears in Sam’s room… Horror ensues.
There’s a cool sort of trinity going on in The Babadook. First, it’s a pure ghost story. And a good one at that. Think the old I-told-you-the-monster-is-real routine from kid to adult. Yet it seamlessly shifts into a possession film and even a slasher later on.
Instead of relying on crazy effects, gore, or cheap scares, The Babadook turns your brain against you. The scariest parts of this movie come from your anticipation. It relies on your own worst fears and your prior “horror movie conditioning” to scare the bejesus out of you.
The kicker? A lot of the time the scares don’t come. There are times where you’re expecting a quick cut or cheap scare to do the trick… Yet we get away easy. The problem is that it leaves you with the sense that when something does happen, it’s going to make you pay. Like, really make you pay.
And it does.
My main problem with The Babadook is that you don’t actually see enough of Mister Babadook. Now before you film nerds start talking to me about artistic intent and metaphorical interpretation, the fact of the matter is that you DO see him. A few times. And not just in the book. (Speaking of the book, I can’t convey the sense of dread I had as Ameila rips up the mysterious popup book. I almost found myself saying “he’s NOT going to like that…”).
We see some very cool instances of his ominous presence without him actually being there. The police station and dish washing scenes come to mind. Even the late-night TV hallucination. Shadows are cool and all. And less is often more… But at a certain point, show me the monster. Maybe I’m just old school.
The other problem I have with The Babadook is that at times it is too obviously a movie about the hardships of motherhood (and to a lesser degree, the daily struggle to not murder your own kids). At least for me.
This is where I think Kent’s 2005 short, Monster, is a little more successful. It’s the basis for The Babadook, and I don’t suggest watching it without first seeing this film.
That said, if you read between the lines, there are some really cool things going on. I actually don’t think there really is a Mister Babadook so much as he exists inside us all (the clues are all there).
Then there’s the ending. It’s awesome. And it’s open-ended. Depending on how you interpret the film, the ending will mean whatever you want it to. But it’s universally cool, creepy, and unsettling… Even the “best case scenario” is kind of terrifying.
All in all, I think The Babadook is incredibly impressive. It takes a shoestring budget and a cool idea to places I didn’t think it could go. No doubt this is because of Jennifer Kent’s vision, talent, and the help of some really outstanding performances.
I disagree with the notion some reviewers have put forth… That horror movies should now be exclusively made by women. That’s pretty silly and narrow-minded…. But I do think it’s very comforting to know that people who know how to tell a story–and scare the actual crap out of you–are leading the charge towards a new golden age of classic horror movies.
The Babadook may not change the game, but it nails every last aspect of the type of horror movie we crave. We’re going to be talking about this one for a long time.
Bonus: Here’s the original short the inspired The Babadook, Monster