Seven year old Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is borderline feral with his unchecked imagination and violent outbursts. His mother, Amelia (Essie Davis), struggles to balance her work life and her attempts to parent her wild son on her own. Her stress is further compounded by her continued grieving over the loss of her husband seven years prior. When Samuel picks out the bed time tale “Mister Babadook,” an eerie pop-up book that seemed to appear from thin air, Amelia’s pushed to the end of her rope as the book’s title character becomes a menacing presence in their already dysfunctional lives.
Debut director Jennifer Kent utilizes a monochrome color palette and haunting sound to set the tone before the audience even catches a glimpse of the Babadook, which only amps up the tension. Familiar haunted house tropes populate the first half of the film; Samuel converses with an unseen visitor, Amelia’s bed time is interrupted by footsteps outside her bedroom door, and every time she tosses out the book it reappears. The second half delves fully into surreal psychological horror reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, taking on a much darker tone.
The strength of the film lies largely with the performances behind Amelia and Samuel. The relationship between the mother and son are in constant fluctuation, alternating between loving and utter frustration. The lack of a paternal presence features prominently at the core of the story; Amelia struggles with parenthood after the loss of her husband while Samuel is becoming more aware that his family life is not like everyone else’s. Some moments you feel Amelia’s defeat at Samuel’s unruliness, and other moments you feel for Samuel due to his mother’s distance. The fragility of their state of living makes the Babadook all the more upsetting. Essie Davis’ portrayal of Amelia is both heartbreaking and horrific, while maintaining that maternal love for Samuel throughout.
While the tension remains consistently palpable, and there are many terrifying moments, it just fell short of the hype machine. Though I suspect I will be in the minority on this one. For me, this was not the scariest movie I’ve seen in a while. The film is well acted, beautifully shot, and emotionally investing, but much of the tension fizzled out instead of the explosive ending the film deserved. Most excellent genre films are social metaphors, I just happen to prefer them to be a little more subtle. Realizing what exactly the Babadook is took away all of the fear, though it did succeed in creating a much richer and more fulfilling story.
Overall, the Babadook is a great entry to the horror genre by Australia and newcomer Jennifer Kent, though not as scary as most reviews would lead you to believe. Another shining example of a successful Kickstarter campaign, the Babadook is set for release on DirectTV October 30, and wider release on November 28th. Check out the website, and sign up on the email list to be notified on updates for the “Mister Babadook” pop-up book release. You know, if you want to keep your children up all night.