It’s been a rough year for horror, with movies like Annabelle, Devil’s Due, and Ouija refusing to move their audiences and instead, inducing them to jolt because of loud BANGS at every turn. As someone who loves the genre, it’s inexpressibly frustrating. But on this day I push my frustrations aside, for I have just watched a horror film that is truly great, and it calls itself The Babadook. Being the first feature from writer/director Jennifer Kent, this Australian horror picture takes what could have been a typical check-under-your-bed fright fest and becomes something even more unsettling: a deeply effective allegorical tale of loss and grief. It’s one that spends less time on the spooky, villainous monster and spends more time on its characters and what the spooky, villainous monster may or may not represent, allegorically speaking. It’s quite a tremendous feat.
Expanding upon her 2005 short film entitled Monster (you can watch the 10-minute short for free on Vimeo here), Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook tells the story of Amelia (Essie Davis), a widow who lost her husband seven years ago in a car crash while on the way to deliver her son. Her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), now seven, is odd. He believes in monsters, and he doesn’t care who knows it. One night, when Amelia allows Samuel to choose which book he wants to read with her before bedtime, Samuel picks up a thick, blood-red colored, pop-up book titled Mister Babadook. As they flip through the pages (which are tremendously animated and have a skin-crawlingly effectual spook factor that could be credited to the dark side of Tim Burton’s mind), they both become unsettled, as it seems like Mister Babadook himself is talking directly to them from the pages. While the creature/monster/boogeyman/whatever-the-hell-it-is lurks in the backdrop, Kent’s script brilliantly brings the focus back to the relationship between Amelia and Samuel, whose circumstances have caused a rift so wide it’s far scarier than any monster ever could be.
This mother-son struggle is what makes The Babadook what it is. Yes, Mister Babadook is a real presence and when he shows up, your skin will crawl, but it’s the relationship between the tormented mother and the unfortunate son that really drives the film home. It’s this very element that has driven so many great horror films in the past, like The Omen (1976) and We Need to Talk about Kevin, a much underseen psychological thriller that is filled with some excellent performances. The Babadook should prove to be a reason to revisit some of those films.
Samuel is a character that is damaged, which is evident from the opening. He carries around homemade weapons, believes in monsters, and has conversations with Mister Babadook (although they’re never the clichéd oh-Mommy-he’s-really-not-harmful-he-just-wants-to-play conversations that plague many poltergeist centered films.) From the moment the two read the book together, he is frightened of the entity and wants nothing to do with him, but there’s no way he’s getting off that easily. In the first act, Samuel is very annoying, and there was one scene in which he was climbing a set of monkey-bars and kept yelling, “Mommy!” at the top of his lungs and I actually yelled, “Just shut up already!” to my screen. I considered it a flaw on the film’s part until the movie progressed and I realized that it was trying to make that character annoying. I felt the same way about Noah Wiseman’s performance as Samuel, which started out annoying and then steadily progressed into impressive work, especially for a child actor. The movie sets up its characters, makes you feel a certain way about them, and then completely reconstructs them before its conclusion.
As Amelia, Essie Davis is triumphant, and I don’t use that word lightly. I thought Katie Sackhoff gave a great performance in Oculus (the only other 2014 horror movie I would describe as “really good”), but Davis trumps her (not that they’re competing). If you know anything about horror movies, you may be able to predict where things are headed by the 60 minute mark, but the predictability doesn’t take away from the impact. Part of this is because once the thing you thought was going to happen happens, Kent’s script throws something else at you that you won’t see coming unless you watch her short film beforehand. And the ending, which takes the question of “is this really an emblematic look at grief?” and answers it resoundingly, is like a pretty ribbon tied onto the gift that the film is itself.
So the emotional mother-son stuff isn’t just fluff and the ending is estimable. So how’s the monster? Well, if a movie is named after a monster named Mister Babadook but shines its spotlight on the characters instead, you would at least expect the monster to be scary when he’s on screen, and he is. The first time we get a good look at him, was more frightening than the reveal of Bathsheba in The Conjuring. You have to know what you’re in for with Mister Babadook, so don’t expect some CGI designed monster with tentacles and fangs. No, Jennifer Kent and her team of designers make the creature a black figure with a top hat, a cloak, and long, sharp fingers. You see his face once, if I remember correctly. The rest of the time it’s just silhouettes in the darkness, which creep into the frame projecting what looks like a murderous version of Edward Scissorhands mixed with Freddy Krueger and the German literary character Struwwelpeter. The practicality of Mister Babadook is something to admire in the middle of a medium that so often relies on special effects and CGI to bring its frightening images to life.
I can’t see anyone complaining about the cartoony look of Mister Babadook or the pop-up book from which he was introduced. The sequences in which Amelia reads through the book are filmed and edited in such a way that feels very Tim Burton-esque, and they may just be the most frightening sequences in the film’s entire running time. However, I can and already have read some viewers’ gripes with the fact that the monster himself isn’t shown very much in the film, and they aren’t wrong. But I would say that the people who are complaining about this are the same people who complained that Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla didn’t have enough of Godzilla. The thing is, the movie, while being about Mister Babadook, isn’t really about Mister Babadook. Jennifer Kent’s film is about what Mister Babadook stands for: grief. From the opening shot, the film never loses its focus and never loses its determination on following and documenting the continual grief that follows a loss. Mister Babadook is there, and he’s a scary presence, but the grief that metaphorically embodies the monster-man is much more dreadful, and it’s what makes The Babadook the best horror movie of 2014.
Starring Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman
Written and directed by Jennifer Kent