While The Babadook is a well-crafted, insightful, and overall excellent film, it's not going to be for everyone.
The Babadook centers on single mother Amelia (Essie Davis) as she attempts to raise her troubled son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), following the unexpected death of her husband. Attempting to balance finances, work commitments, and Samuel's increasingly erratic outbursts - Amelia is worn-out, haunted by the shadow of her past life. She does her best to care for her son but when a mysterious book, titled Mister Babadook, arrives on the family doorstep, Samuel becomes terrified of (and obsessed with) the titular monster - causing his already challenging behavior to become unbearable.
As Samuel dives deeper into madness, Amelia is alienated from previously supportive friends and family - entering a crippling depression. However, when Samuel is expelled from school (after injuring a fellow student) Amelia begins to suspect that her son's fear of Mister Babadook might be more than mental illness - and the result of something far more sinister and supernatural. If it's in a word or if it's in a look, can Amelia get rid of the Babadook?
Actress turned filmmaker Jennifer Kent wrote and directed The Babadook - on a $2.5 million budget (with the help of $30,000 in Kickstarter crowd funds). Yet, in spite of its meager budget, The Babadook proves that less is more - especially in the horror genre. Where competing films rely on CGI monsters or found footage gimmickry, The Babadook is reminiscent of the genre's most memorable and disturbing classics - tales of terror where character and a confident balance between withholding/showing kept viewers engaged. As a result, casual film fans who need jump scares, carnage, and clear shots of a shadowy beast will likely find that The Babadook is too restrained and auteur to be a rousing crowd-pleaser; though, vintage horror fans (and cinephiles) should have no trouble appreciating the layered and downright disturbing experience Kent has put to film.
In fact, while there are plenty of spooky moments in The Babadook, the central "horror" is driven by the characters and their tragic (not to mention relatable) circumstances - rather than the supernatural presence. Moviegoers will, without a doubt, have their own interpretations of the Babadook's origin/identity (literally and thematically) but the true terror of Kent's movie comes from Amelia's struggles as a single mother - desperately trying to handle forces outside of her direct control (be they superficial or paranormal). To that end, The Babadook is a story of personal sacrifice - and the dangers of unchecked repression: a cautionary tale where attempting to do the right thing doesn't necessarily lead to health and happiness. Even though Mister Babadook drives the film, and lingers over Amelia and Samuel, Kent's film is, above all else, the story of a mother and son who are both struggling, in their own ways, to move past grief.
After 20 years in the film industry, and with notable roles in the Matrix trilogy and Charlotte's Web, Essie Davis delivers one of her most powerful performances in The Babadook - successfully capturing the frustration, helplessness, and despair of a single mother at her mental and physical limit. Where other horror films cast mother figures as strident protectors, Amelia is far less heroic (at times) and, for that reason, significantly more relatable - placing the audience inside a haunted home where the horror isn't always black and white. Certain aspects of Amelia's arc (and Davis' performance) will be familiar to horror lovers but, in the context of Kent's larger ambitions for The Babadook, both the character and the actress deliver a lasting impression.
Similarly, newcomer Noah Wiseman is essential in elevating The Babadook above competing "possessed child" movies. Like his mother, Samuel is the victim of circumstance rather than a one-note vessel for evil, tortured by his visions of The Babadook, but without a healthy outlet to express his fears. To that end, Wiseman is genuinely creepy in the part - while also imbuing Samuel with nuanced sympathy (and believable terror).
Still, as indicated, casual moviegoers who are more interested in the "what" of Babadook, rather than the "who," may find that Kent's film retreads too many recognizable horror staples (albeit with a new layer of sharp subtext) and does not offer enough overt scares or reveals to satisfy watchers who want to be entertained as well as horrified. The movie is designed, from the outset, to be a delicate character story - where the challenges of adulthood play just as significant a role in the horror as the film's monster. For that reason, while The Babadook is a well-crafted, insightful, and overall excellent film, it's not going to be for everyone.
That said, for those who enjoy a heavy portion of thought-provoking (not to mention twisted) psychological terror to compliment their horror movie viewing, The Babadook is a passionate and uncompromising look at mental illness in the face of unexplainable forces. By the end, Kent has thoroughly unpacked the subtleties (and some not-so-subtleties) of her subject matter - aided by captivating performances from her two leads - while also introducing audiences to a frightening new villain under the bed. Like Mister Babadook, it might initially be easy to dismiss the film as a boorish retread of horror classics but, as willing viewers begin to investigate the insightful parallels in every scene and every look, it'll be extremely hard to forget The Babadook.
The Babadook runs 93 minutes and is Rated R for knives, bugs, frightened children, frightening children, violence, and things under the bed. Now playing in select theaters.
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