I like to think I don’t scare particularly easily. “The Babadook” freaked me out. It is completely unpredictable and director Jennifer Kent masterfully creates a world with an omnipresent sense of dread. Kent draws on several influences from earlier horror movies and connects them to create a truly terrifying story held together by an excellent performance by Essie Davis as Amelia.
Too many horror movies are unpredictable for the sake of being unpredictable (Hi Scream series), but The Babadook was constantly forcing me to question everything and kept me on my toes throughout. We go through two assumptions of what the conflict actually is before arriving at the true battle. Act 1 sets up a standard “demon child” story a la The Omen. As far as child actors go, Noah Wiseman as Samuel did a great job switching roles throughout the movie, but he had a couple noticeable points where he was lacking. He didn’t seem “worried enough” throughout, if that makes sense. By Act 2, we have solved the mystery of Samuel and now we’re in full-on psychological terror. Amelia was our rock throughout the first portion of the movie, our grip on reality. Now, she’s forcing us to question what is and isn’t real. The atmosphere established by Kent is pivotal to this section working. The creepy, dimly lit house and effective use of the score and sound really forces the audience into the mind of Amelia. We’re just as terrified as her to pull those blankets down and see what’s creeping around the bedroom. Finally, by Act 3, we have learned the Babadook is very real and we move into possession horror territory, with Kent drawing liberally from The Exorcist. This act doesn’t work at all with a great performance out of Essie Davis, and she flips between psychotic killer and caring mother effortlessly. Everything about Essie’s performance in the climactic battle is chilling and unnerving. The unpredictability continues here, as we are led to believe the book will perfectly predict the outcome of the movie, starting with the killing of the dog. (That’s a scene that’s going to stick with me for a really long time.) Ultimately, Sam is a resourceful kid, and once again we are forced to recalibrate our protagonist/antagonist expectation. The Babadook gives itself a tough task of using Act 1 to set up Sam as the antagonist and Amelia as the protagonist, but by Act 3, we have the reverse and it makes perfect sense in the context of the world. The epilogue was an equally surprising conclusion, with the Babadook now subjugated by Amelia. It ultimately makes the most sense of any of the options given, as no clues are given to actually kill the Babadook.
Beyond the fear of the unknown, much of the terror from above comes from a combination of atmospheric terror and superb acting. Both of these are very well done. If there is a place the scares tone down some, it would be from the “showpiece” stuff involving the Babadook itself. The voice was gravelly and poorly produced, and the ultimate reveal of seeing the Babadook descend upon Amelia was a bit on the laughable side. When that happened I was left with a “that’s it?” feeling. I know these were probably budgetary constraints, but they did ultimately detract from the experience. However, I haven’t even mentioned the creepiest thing in the movie – the book itself. That thing is just disturbing. Whoever created it deserves an award. The illustrations and use of black-and-white matched the tone of the movie to a T.
Horror movies do not tend to have an agenda beyond scaring audiences, but much of the brilliance of The Babadook is its focus on those quieter moments involving the relationship between Amelia and Samuel. Amelia is a broken person raising what appears to be a broken boy, desperate for any sort of affection. It makes for an interesting dynamic throughout the movie, especially in the final battle between Samuel and his possessed mother. Samuel, like most kids, is smarter than we give him credit for. He understands that Amelia has very real issues that ultimately make her an unfit mother. Most children expect their parents to protect them from monsters, but Samuel has built himself an arsenal. He also talks about how he just wants to protect Amelia from the Babadook. It makes for some very jarring interactions where Samuel acts as an authority figure within the household, innately aware that the two of them will not survive the Babadook without his intervention. I think we have to give Samuel some big credit for forgiving Amelia in the end, as many of the things she said while possessed would have left the deepest emotional scars on people who are acutely aware of what is happening. For Samuel to power through and understand that his mother didn’t mean any of what she was saying is something to be commended.
Or did she mean some of it? Amelia never got over the trauma of losing her husband. She probably does hate Samuel to a degree. The battle with the Babadook ultimately turns into Amelia letting go of the trauma of losing her husband, and winds up forcing her to protect Samuel, something neither of them thought she was capable of.
Now is a good time to comment on Essie Davis’ performance, which was fantastic and terrifying. We recently talked about Rose Leslie having to play multiple roles in The Honeymoon; Davis has a similar evolution, going from downtrodden basketcase to possessed monster. She proves to be scarier visually than the Babadook himself, able to contort her face into such looks of rage that she proves to be the real monster the audience should fear. It will be a long time before I forget the look of determined anger on her face as she chokes the life out of her own dog or the screaming banshee unleashing a tsunami of hate upon her own son. I’m not sure how good of an actress she is, as my only other experience with Essie Davis is a small part in The Matrix Trilogy, but my curiousity is definitely piqued. Also, it was good call “uglying her up” and turning her into the female version of Dave Mustaine. That certainly added to the experience I think.
The Babadook takes many of the best aspects from classic horror to create something completely unique and scary in today’s horror genre. Jennifer Kent managed to make less more and relied on her actors to generate the bulk of the scares, and it paid off. There were some effects that begged to have more budget put into them, and Noah Wiseman had a few hiccups. In the end, this is a great horror movie that I’d recommend to any masochists out there.
+ Freaking scary
+ Builds terror through means “unconventional” by today’s standards
+ Essie Davis turns in an amazing performance
+ The book itself is one of the all-time great movie props
- Effects were cheesy
- Noah Wiseman had a couple rough patches