This review may contain some spoilers, but none crucial to the plot.
In the wake of Insidious came a resurgence of haunted house/possession films that center around young suburban families, and a ghost that’s later revealed to be a demon or a spiritual embodiment of evil. Films like Sinister, The Conjuring, Annabelle, The Possession or more subtly Deliver Us from Evil, are clearly riding the coattails of Insidious. Yes, I understand there were other films before it that accomplished the same effect (Paranormal Activity), but it did spark a new “appreciation” for these movies. Producers everywhere scrambled to generate the next Insidious in the hopes of tasting that profitable, succulent consumerist pie. One such movie, however, is The Babadook: an Australian-spun horror fairy tale.
The story is simple: a single mother, still recovering over her husband’s violent death, has to raise their problematic son by herself. One night she decides to read him a bedtime story; he chooses a mysterious picture book entitled Mister Babadook. Through nursery rhyme, it tells the story of Mr. Babadook, a terrifying entity that ‘befriends’ families with small children and, through implied imagery ‘haunts’ them into obedience. Soon, the boy becomes convinced that Mr. Babadook is real, much to the stress and anxiety facing his exhausted mother. While, at first, she doesn’t believe it, she too begins recognizing the signs of his unearthly presence. However, the questions remain; what is the Babadook, and what does it want? All these answers and more are… kind of answered.
Let’s jump right in. Essie Davis plays Amelia, the young mother who is relentlessly sparring with insomnia and her troubled, frightened son. Her performance is glowing! There was not one instance where I did not genuinely believe that she was either restless or tortured by the recollections of her husband’s accident. In fact, as you watch it, you begin to feel the queasy embrace of insomnia creep over you. Though, beneath her weary appearance lays passive regret, and perhaps cynical, benign (for now) anger towards her son, since we are told that her husband died en route to the hospital to deliver their son. Given that half her scenes hold no dialogue, it’s remarkable to see her convey such complex emotion simply through body language. Noah Wiseman plays her son Samuel; he steals the show. Sure, there are instances where you can clearly see him smirking, but for a child who’s only credit is a short, he’s damn fine. His angry outbursts feel genuine. When he’s scared or worried, you believe it’s real. It’s so easy for a good horror film to be bogged down by bad acting, especially from child actors, but if anything, both performances are what really save the film. The ‘exorcism’ scene near the end, when Samuel confronts his possessed mother may be the film’s best moment.
Let’s discuss Mr. Babadook. He, like most cinematic monsters or demons, lurks in the shadows, stalks his prey, and appears in random areas for no reason other than to scare the audience. It’s great. His design is quite refreshing too. Unlike most cinematic demons or ghosts, Mr. Babadook is not hooded, or skull-faced, or anything like the conventional demon; he maintains an old-world, Victorian era wardrobe. He’s a cane and a moustache away from being Rich Uncle Pennybags. Imagine if Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist became a ghost; that’s Mr. Babadook. While his actual appearance is quite haunting, how he’s portrayed in the picture book is scarier still. In fact, the scene where Amelia reads Mister Babadook to Samuel may be the most unsettling, albeit darkly comedic sequence that I’ve seen in a long time.
Unfortunately, despite superb performances, a daunting antagonist, and a genuinely apprehensive mood, the film suffers from one major flaw: it’s not terribly scary. The Babadook is almost completely scoreless, which is fantastic. The absent soundtrack adds to the taught environment; you anticipate each character’s movement, especially at night, which may add to the faux feeling of exhaustion. You hear every creak in the house, and with every dark corner, you gaze into with fearful concern. However, 80% of the time, nothing happens. The scariest thing that occurs is the loud and sudden knocks at the door. Otherwise, you are needlessly sitting on pins and needles. In fact, even Mr. Babadook fall prey to these ‘all bark and no bite’ sequences. We are seen a relatively terrifying portrayal of Mr. Babadook beckoning a sleeping child as he hangs under her ceiling (pictured above). His face is appalling. We know this will happen in the film, and it does. The problem is the execution. Mr. Babadook crawls across the ceiling in a horribly awkward stop-motion effect, only for him to convulse and expose his long fingers. Then, in a sequence where Amelia is watching old silent films on TV (for some reason), Mr. Babadook comically appears in each film as if he were some supernatural clown. It removes you from the film. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it but it was meaningless.
I did not hate The Babadook; I liked it quite a lot, despite its fallacies. It’s a cold film to watch, but it suffers from having no real horror. It’s purely performance and mood driven. The characters and their story are what really shine. Replacing the horror with a genuine sense of compassion between its two characters may not be what director Jennifer Kent had in mind, but it’s somehow forgivable. Perhaps you may compare it to a Ti West film. Just remember: when the movie wraps, and the credits roll, you may find yourself asking these questions: where did the storybook come from? How did Mr. Babadook come to be? Is he summoned when someone reads the book or did he just appear out of thin air? What was up with that ending? Why the worms? Why did it want Samuel? Why did it make Amelia hallucinate cockroaches in her kitchen? Why did it have an eastern European accent? Most of these questions will never be answered. Actually, I suspect the answers are in the picture book. If you catch it on DVD, make sure to pause and read it because I believe it lends a lot of information about the character. I’d like to see a sequel.