This review is loaded with spoilers.
The Babadook is kind of an instant classic. Horror is so saturated with mediocrity than when something relatively original and genuinely terrifying comes along, it's guaranteed to find a cult fanbase. But The Babadook went further, generating extremely positive word of mouth and achieving decent box office success - not bad for a film funded via Kickstarter and filmed in a suburb of Adelaide, AU.
A physical manifestation of grief
For the first 45 minutes of this film, maybe longer, I hated Samuel (Noah Wiseman). I wanted the Babadook to come and claim him. I wanted Amelia (Essie Davis) to have a few moments relief from the brat apparently determined to make her life a living hell. So it was seriously bold of writer-director Jennifer Kent to toy with her audience by completely switching our sympathies mid way through the movie. As Amelia becomes more and more consumed by paranoia and fear, subduing Samuel by force with drugs he doesn't need, everything I had felt for her I now felt for him. The script was layered and wise enough not to bother presenting heroes and villains - mother and son are simply human beings, dealing with mutual grief the best way they know how.
This is further reinforced by that oddball, vaguely ambiguous ending in which the Babadook is consigned to the Vaneks' closet, and Amelia, having spent the best part of a week being haunted by the creature, reassures it, tells the monster there's no need to be scared. Because actually, the Babadook is nothing but a spiritual or physical manifestation of Amelia's grief for the husband (Oskar) she lost immediately before she gained a son, and the hole it left behind, and now that she's addressed the grief, she's ready to move on with her life.
Where did the book come from?
Whilst scouring the internet I came across a few really interesting theories regarding the film's things and certain details of the plot. The first addresses perhaps the only "plot hole" in the film's 90 minute run-time: how exactly did the book find its way onto Samuel's bookshelf?
Remember the conversation Amelia has her with her husband's awful sister Claire, who tells her she should start writing children's books again? Chances are, that wasn't coincidence. The book is discovered in her home, so it's possible she wrote it during a dark spell post-childbirth and then forgot about it or erased the memory, along with the repressed grief she feels for her husband.
Some aspects of the way Amelia talks (for instance, during her tirade at Samuel, "all you ever do is talk-talk-talk") also resemble the "dook-dook-dook" contained with the book's text. And what about the name of the beast itself? The Babadook sounds a lot like "the Dada book", which ties in with the Babadook taking Oskar's place in their lives. The Babadook's scream also sounded a lot like the screeching of car tyres in the wet, a constant reminder of Oskar's death.
A few smaller clues: when Amelia visits the police station she has something black on her hands which could just be the soot from her burning of the book, but could also be ink given that new pages appear when the book returns, having continued to illustrate and edit it during moments of lesser lucidity.
And finally, was the film's slightly surrealist happy ending just a figment of Amelia's imagination? Although I don't personally subscribe to this view, it does tally with the TV news report earlier in the film where a woman is reported to have murdered her seven year old son, and also explains how Samuel could produce a live white dove from a hat whilst performing his trick in the garden. But the more likely explanation is that the news report was Amelia's fantasy during a moment of intense depression and that Samuel became a good enough magician to pull off the dove trick. Maybe I'm just an optimist.
Is The Babadook the horror of the decade?
That's a question for you to answer, not me. Although on a personal level I preferred Goodnight Mommy, that film was less scary, but wound a tighter mystery and left such an impression on me that I watched it again a week later. The Babadook is undeniably one of the outright scariest horrors in years, and a combination of two superb performances and a smart script help it transcend its genre.
A third contender is It Follows, which hits a totally different note by tapping into a wider social anxiety around the fear of (talking about) sex. Again, that film is less frightening but a terrific mood piece. All three have a degree of originality and intelligence which lift them above their peers in the horror genre, and all make an excellent choice if you're looking for a film to watch with your friends this Halloween. It's available to watch now on US Netflix.
What did you think of The Babadook? Does it live up to the title of the scariest horror in years, and do you have a theory I didn't pick up on? Share your thoughts in the comments, and take a look at this related reading: