Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Directed by: Jennifer Kent
Written by: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wieseman, Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinney & Barbara West
There aren’t enough horror movies focusing on the monster that kids fear the most. I speak, of course, of the boogeyman. He takes many shapes and forms, lurking underneath the bed or hiding in the closet. THE BABADOOK (an Australian import that premiered at this year’s Sundance film festival and was recently acquired by IFC Midnight) is a movie that brings this creature (complete with top-hat and sharp claws) to life in a genuinely frightening way. Part psychological horror and maybe a bit of a supernatural tale(?), THE BABADOOK is a film that actually reaches the level of being terrifying. There are a couple of flaws that hold it back from what it could have been, but this is still a movie that might have adults checking under their bed before a restless night’s sleep.
It’s been seven years since Amelia’s husband was killed in a car accident, which was also the precise day that her son Samuel was born. With her son serving as a constant reminder of her loss, Amelia struggles to maintain order and this is made all the more difficult by her child’s vivid imagination. Constantly frightened of the possibility of monsters coming to get him, Samuel is seen as weird by his teacher, classmates, and relatives. One night, he finds a storybook that his mother has never seen before (titled MISTER BABADOOK). The pop-out book is morbid beyond belief and cements the idea in Samuel’s head that there is indeed a monster (this time, the Babadook) coming to get him. On this occasion, he could be right. While the boy’s behavior is seen as acting out, Amelia begins to hear strange sounds in their home at night and experience terrible nightmares. Indeed, the Babadook may be very real….or could it just be a mother on the edge of sanity?
In the wrong hands, this movie could have been downright cheesy and stupid. When I read the synopsis in the Sundance guide, I was very hesitant. Only the promising trailer sold me on seeing the film and I’m very glad I caught it at this year’s fest. THE BABADOOK is extremely atmospheric! It’s difficult to explain the color palette of the film, but it looks amazing. Though there is a bit of blood in a couple of scenes, this is a story that focuses more on scaring you through legitimate frights. I jumped a foot in the air during some scenes and actually felt chills run up my spine at one point (which never really happens in horror films with me, so that’s something special). The creepy music score adds a lot to the film as well.
The vagueness of the Babadook being real or Amelia just going off the deep end due to stress is a wise move, because it keeps the viewer on edge for two entirely separate possibilities. The revelation of the Babadook’s possible existence is left to the viewer’s imagination until a harrowing 20 minutes that build to the conclusion. As Amelia and Samuel, Essie Davis and Noah Wieseman come off as a realistic mother-son pair. The character of Samuel can be annoying at times (we share Amelia’s stress in a few scenes), but he’s a seven-year-old kid and that’s how children act. They can get rambunctious, reckless, and have creative imaginations. Amelia is relatable as a stressed out single-mother who’s constantly reminded of her deceased husband and suffering from some real problems (a grumpy boss, an inconsiderate sister, and the behavior of her son).
The image of the Babadook is left in the dark for most of the film. What we do see are hints that he’s around and some pretty freaky nightmare sequences. While the look of the monster himself is scary, one scene involving CGI was a little too silly looking. Mercifully, it takes up less than a minute of screen time. My main issue with the film is that it suffers from what I’ll call Guillermo Del Toro syndrome. If you liked the endings of the DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK remake or MAMA, then I would imagine you’d probably really dig the finale of this film. However, I did not care for either of those endings. I feel that a great horror movie should leave you scared on your way out of the theater (SINISTER and INSIDIOUS are examples of perfect horror movie endings). With THE BABADOOK, it felt like they were building up to a terrifying ending that would have viewers leaving the lights on well into the night. Instead, it almost feels like the conclusion doesn’t belong. To say anything specific would give major spoilers, but I wasn’t satisfied with it.
Unlike MAMA, THE BABADOOK doesn’t tank based solely on the ending. While there’s a questionable effect and I didn’t necessarily like the ending, this is a freaky little film that is genuinely scary throughout. THE BABADOOK is an effective ride. Without those two flaws, I would have given this a perfect grade and was considering doing so throughout the 90% of the movie. THE BABADOOK may not be a masterpiece or a potential horror classic, but it stands as a reminder of just how chilling the thought of a potential monster hiding in the dark can be.