In a small, tucked-away and unnamed Australian suburb, the already ill-behaved Samuel is getting worse. A seven-year-old with an unchecked imagination, unruly hair and teeth, and an untamed nature, Samuel is running wild. Consequently, his widowed, single, and stressed-out mother Amelia is having a hard time coping with his feral temperament. But if Samuel’s myriad problems appear to be the unfortunate, but characteristic, tantrums of a poorly-adjusted and damaged child without a father figure or friends, the boy’s issues soon take on a much darker edge.
Already nightmare-riddled and diagnosed as a potential ADD-affected child who could stand to be medicated for the sake of the children and parents around him, Amelia’s life becomes more unmanageable when Samuel starts spouting sinister gobbledygook about a monster living in his room called The Babadook. Already trying to balance her work life at a nursing home with parenting her disruptive child, Amelia initially dismisses these rants and raves. But as Samuel’s disposition becomes more unhinged, nearly getting him kicked out of school for bringing Babadook-fighting weapons to the premises, and alienates Amelia’s already distrustful sister for injuring her child, Amelia’s fraying common sense begins to wither. Considering her options, the appearance of a mysterious book called “Mister Babadook” in Samuel’s room begins to freak the single mother out and leads her to ask: is the Babadook a figment of Samuel’s troubled imagination or does the growing physical evidence point to something evil and menacing skulking inside their home?
A marvelous and plausible premise to launch a dark fable and a story of psychological horror, Aussie filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s promising debut is a terrific examination of the terrors of childhood, the isolating nature of single motherhood, the traumas of grief, and the horrors of raising monstrous children. Calibrated for maximum scares, jolts, and feigning shock effect, “The Babadook” is well-schooled in the rhythms, tricks, and pacing of horror, but fortunately never abuses the mechanical editing ruses the movie employs. In fact, it’s self-aware and enjoyably playful in its first half, tipping its cap to horror tropes fans will recognize, but at the same time, never calling overt attention to itself.
If a single mother can easily be driven to madness on the regular, “The Babadook” makes the convincing argument for those anxieties growing into something much more psychotic and dangerous. At its core, horror has an unfortunate (and sometimes very vexing) penchant for stacking up adversities against its protagonists to either build up a body count, or in the case of a movie like this, amp up the mental illness issues into a psychosis. This is a fundamental element of its construction. While this narrative ploy is often contrived and frustrating (there’s nothing worse than watching a character you’re ostensibly supposed to like make stupid decisions for the sake of plot and at the expense of his/her dignity), “The Babadook” still utilizes this structure of increasing fears and angst, but does so organically and convincingly.
As Samuel’s strident outbursts become more violent, we not only sympathize with Amelia’s growing mental discord, but we also empathize with her plight. As the “The Babadook” moves into much darker psychological terrain, the strain on the film’s credulity are made up by the director’s well-composed vision, the wonderfully persuasive leads (Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman) and the movie’s masterful control of tone.
Pitched somewhere between early, less whimsical Tim Burton and Roman Polanski (think a modern day “Repulsion” with a more wry sense of humor), “The Babadook” is engaging, unique, and an inventive take on the boogeyman/psychological horror genre that has something to say to boot. The thematic depth says volumes about the unique needs of children, but also the understanding and empathy necessary in order to fully understand their various aggressions. Likewise, “The Babadook” reads like an unassailable case for single mothers to hit the spa and relax, likely recognizing the movie as a regular day at work. As mentioned, perhaps the movie’s biggest flaw is its transition from light and enjoyable set-up to full on psychological horror, which isn’t quite seamless. The second half of “The Babadook” threatens to become a little too humorless for its own good with its dark and psychotic visage.
However, this transformation won’t at all be a dealbreaker for horror fans, and regular citizens jarred by the changeover will be assuaged by the film’s strong finish which embraces the themes, emotional center, and dark fairytale-like qualities. A sharp and layered look at family dysfunction and the strains both children and parents have to straddle while negotiating the loss of loved ones, “The Babadook” is smart, respectful horror that puts character and emotional issues first, yet never at the cost of a delightful and haunting fright. In a movie industry that throws cheapie, found-footage horror into theaters every quarter to make a quick buck, “The Babadook” is an increasingly rare breed that should be championed and cottoned to. And while you’re rolling out the welcome mat, leave an appropriate place at the table for horror discovery Jennifer Kent. [B+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.