The reason why The Babadook is being called one of the scariest horror films in recent memory is because it is not a movie about a monster. Instead, it’s a film about a mother.
Yet before you immediately start pulling out your comparison sheets to make correlations between Mama or a peak-era Michael Douglas sexual thriller about a “dangerous” female protagonist, some context is in order. The Babadook, a feature-length expansion of actress Jennifer Kent‘s short Monster, tells the story of a woman named Amelia (Essie Davis) who is still reeling from the passing of her husband who died while driving her to the hospital for her to deliver their son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Not fully mentally prepared to be a single mother, Amelia nonetheless does all she can to give the imaginative Samuel all she can, even though emotionally he’s a bit outspoken, training to hunt imaginary monsters that only he can see. At one point he brings homemade weapons to school, leading to him being expelled. All the while, Amelia buffs passes from a nursing home co-worker while trying to keep it all together, her frustration with Samuel’s reckless behavior becoming so much that her sanity begins to slowly slip.
Much like one of the other truly great horror films of the past 20 years, Neil Marshall’s The Descent, The Babadook wastes little time in letting the audience know that they’re in for a serious ride, one that doesn’t pull any punches or play with cheap shock effects (fun fact: both open with car crashes). Kent knows that great horror films work because they prioritize atmosphere over jump scares.
Even more than that, she knows that great horror films aren’t really about scary monsters and super freaks. Much like an actor with bad training, playing the intention of “I’m making a horror film” is an insipid way to make a creative work; aiming more for the end effect than creating actual substance fails to recognize the fact that audiences aren’t gore-loving sheeple. They actually show up because of neatly-executed premises. Unique twists and bold choices will always play better than cookie-cutter horror tropes lined up for their predictable, inevitable slaughter.
Thus (spoiler warning), after Amelia reads Samuel a new book which has suddenly appeared in his room called “The Babadook”, he appropriately starts freaking out, deathly afraid of the titular beast and suddenly causing even more of a ruckus with Amelia’s friends who are genuinely disturbed by the fact that this maturing little boy still believes in monsters. Yet even Amelia starts freaking out, seeing things on her own, losing her grip on reality as her son only dives deeper into his fear. Although many frightening events happen and stylish, brooding set pieces are deployed with harrowing effect, once it’s all over the audience is left with the question as to whether or not the Babadook was actually real. Was the monster instead a manifestation of all the resentment Amelia had built up over the years towards her son, never acknowledging them until he pushes her to her absolute breaking point? Especially with the film’s far-too-gleeful last two minutes, these questions require some time to sink in.
By the time the credits roll, one almost wishes Kent and crew made a much clearer distinction on the matter, but ultimately, the ever-questioning nature of The Babadook is what keeps audiences on edge, genuinely unsure of what will happen next. To help create the monster, Kent uses almost nothing but practical effects. However, Kent sometimes does display the Babadook’s actual face a bit too regularly, tempering the mystique that the rest of the film uses so brilliantly. Yet such a quibble like that is minor in the grand scale of things; when things take a turn for the terrifying, fewer prospects are as unnerving as Amelia’s own personal transformation into a monster, both in overt ways (manically hunting down Samuel with a kitchen knife) to the the subtle (echoing the Babadook’s rhyme scheme of “baba-dook-dook-dook”, she at one point tells Samuel she’s sick of his “talk-talk-talking”, a clever wink that almost flies completely under the radar).
As spooky as the film is, none of it would matter were we not able to believe the lead characters, and to that end, Davis and Wiseman deliver in absolute spades. Wiseman comes off completely believable as an overenthusiastic boy who is absolutely convinced of the terrors that only he can see. Davis beautifully crafts an arc of a woman who is slowly and reluctantly coming to realize the resentment she has been building up to her own son. Her anger pokes out at unexpected times and in brutal ways. Her paranoia is excellently reflected through the direction and production design (note all the times when she “sees” shapes of the Babadook in the real world), but the weight of the film rests on Davis’ face. In a more perfect world, there would have been a lot of award-season buzz around her performance.
While The Babadook remains an excellent if not necessarily generation-defining horror flick, the extras on the lavishly-designed DVD set feel remarkably slight. Although the inclusion of the bare-bones short Monster short shows a lot of promise — even though the concept is much more vague — it makes for a fascinating portrait of a filmmaker continuing her journey, not to mention a delightful curiosity for fans.
Featurettes on building the main house and designing the actual Babadook book provide insight, but added-on B-roll footage and a rather stupid short showing Amelia bounding up stairs via wire work feel pointless and unnecessary. Although interviews with the rest of the cast members are more than serviceable, an entire unedited hour-long segment showing each and every talking head is, assuredly, a test of anyone’s patience.
That being said, The Babadook does so many things right that sniping on its smaller flaws feels unnecessary. Horror fans are a rare breed, and they know great cinema when they see it. The Babadook doesn’t twist all that many conventions, but its crystal-clear execution and attention to what makes people truly terrified puts it a cut above the rest. You certainly may find the monster scary, but The Babadook‘s biggest shock of all is that it may not be the monster we should truly be scared of.