Review: The Babadook (2014)

Review: Babadook

3 Stars

I’m just going to say it: most horror films are crap. The worst ones rely solely on gore, loud noises, and the stupidity of their characters in an effort to “shock” audiences who either (a) don’t know better, or (b) relish this type of cinematic garbage for who knows what reason.

This is why I’m thankful for the recent surge of indie movies that deal with the supernatural. Once upon a time, “low-budget” horror meant cheap thrills–bad special effects, terrible acting, putrid writing–the whole shebang. This isn’t the case anymore, at least not entirely. There will always be a market for trash (see all the Paranormal Activity and Saw films for clarification on this matter), but well made, smart, independent horror movies are now commonplace. Movies like The Babadook are now becoming the norm.

That doesn’t make it any less special, though. It’s easy to lump this Australian import into the same category of films like In Fear and You’re Next, but that would ultimately be a cop-out. The Babadook isn’t your garden-variety scarefest. I would argue that most of it isn’t particularly scary, at least not in a conventional sense. There are no quick cuts accompanied by a sudden orchestral swell. Little is known of the title monster, and even less is shown of it. In a nutshell, The Babadook steers away from traditional tropes that usually define the horror genre. And it does the one thing that could easily break a film, regardless of category: it works almost entirely as a metaphor. On parenting, no less.

This probably sounds quite boring, and it may very well be as such for horror aficionados, but that doesn’t make it any less compelling for the rest of us. The first two thirds of The Babadook is mostly build up and character development. We’re introduced to Amelia (Essie Davis), a single mother burdened with a son named Sam (Noah Wiseman) who won’t stop talking about monsters. This isn’t everyday imaginary friend territory, either. The idea of creatures living under his bed and inside his closet prevents him from discussing anything else, making himself and, by default, his mother, social outcasts. Things really hit the fan when Sam decides to take one of his handmade monster-killing weapons to school. It’s revealed from the get-go that this kid has some serious issues.

Terror ensues when the mother-son duo find a copy of a mysterious children’s book titled “The Babadook.” Sam, who probably will grow up to be a masochist of some variety, insists that he needs it read it to him, only to discover a creepy promise that the titular monster will wreak havoc upon their broken, depressing little lives. It’s the most terrifying thing Sam has ever heard, thus making his delusions worse and his spastic behaviour even more unbearable. He is convinced the real Babadook is coming to get him and his mother.

But are they delusions? I’ll leave that for you to discover, though the fact that this is indeed a horror movie should answer that question. The Babadook teeters between the fine lines of psychological terror and supernatural fiction, a quality that works well in its favor. And it ends with ambiguity that is at once frustrating and satisfying. One thing is for certain, though: this is a particular story that will have you thinking about it long after the credits roll. Not too shabby when you consider that fact that this is writer/director Jennifer Kent’s first attempt at a feature length film.

Alas, horrifying this movie is not, but it is creepy. And not in a simple, totally oddball way, either. Sam is a strange child, but he’s no Carrie. His actual problems are grounded in reality, amplified only by the fact that his mother seems to really resent his very existence. It’s a heartbreaking notion, but in many ways, The Babadook is the least of his worries.

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