I’ve been interested in The Babadook ever since our editor supreme, Matthew Razak, wrote a feature detailing how progressive it was. If you’ve read any of my reviews in the past (or any of my other work here on Flixist), you know that I’m not a particular fan of horror films. Besides being a giant baby man who scares easily, the horror genre isn’t exactly the most unique genre out there. You see one film, you’ve seen them all.
But within the last few years, horror films have been trying their best to remind us why they’re special in the first place. Horror can explore and exploit what other films can’t: darkness, depression, anxiety, fear, regret, and loneliness.
The Babadook wraps all of that up into one fantastic package as it becomes one of the most original horror films of the decade.
After the untimely (and gruesome) death of her husband, newly widowed Amelia (Essie Davis) is struggling to raise her aggressively misbehaving son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). The more her son misbehaves, the more Amelia pushes the two from society. Her son breaks a child’s nose, loudly fits, and Amelia becomes a recluse in order to hide her constant shame of the lack of power she has. Then one day a pop up book, the story of Mr. Babadook, arrives on their doorstep and as the book reveals the sinister contents hidden inside, and her son cries over a monster hiding under his bed, Amelia realizes the storybook monster may be knocking on her door.
The Babadook is psychological thriller with a thin veil of horror. A meticulously crafted tale with darkness bubbling under the surface. It has this perfect way of getting under your skin. Unlike other, more traditional horror films, there are no big set pieces, no major scares, and nary a cheap cut or jump scare in sight. Babadook has a healthy amount of confidence in its concept, and we reap the rewards of that confidence. Thanks to a slow burning narrative done well (thankfully the pace doesn’t reflect this), the foreshadowing is never heavy handed and dealt with the proper amount of ominousness. It’s never teasing to the point of obnoxiousness. But that’s also what brings it down.
Without going too much into detail (because even noting the story beats gives away a bit), nothing really “happens.” When broken down to the core, the film’s plot has very little progression. While notable story beats help the film’s themes evolve, it asks quite a bit from the audience as those story bits are spread far apart (For example, they get the book and read it, several scenes of “living,” and then the menacing stuff kicks in). It’s like a twisted take on a slice of life film. Your enjoyment of Babadook resides completely with how much you can infer from the events of the film and enjoy the periods of wallowing. But if you do notice what’s really happening, it’s all wonderfully delivered. When Mr. Babadook himself literally becomes the anxiety barging in on Amelia’s life, everything else the film’s been working toward clicks (which Matt discussed in essay in greater, thematically spoilery detail). I get that it’s a weird criticism to say “the film needs you to work,” while simultaneously praising its confidence to exist, but that’s just what The Babadook has done to me.
It’s a film that made me look at myself more so than any other film this year. An introspective piece that makes me curious as to how I’d react to loss. While I will never know the emotional states of motherhood and child rearing, I feel like I know a little bit more. What if my kid were a big jerk to everyone? What if, like in the film, the only way to deal with that child is through solitary confinement, and he can’t develop the proper social skills to survive? Will I ever want to potentially erase that child from my life? Will my child become a reflection of my feelings of incompetence? The Babadook delves into all of that and then some. A slow film about fighting stagnation while never becoming stale itself.
Oh, I didn’t even talk about rest of the film. The Babadook is a very technically built thriller. The shots are seeped in the right blends of darkness and light, the camera is always angled in such a way that you never get a good look at Mr. Babadook (but it’s never annoyingly so), and the sound design is fantastic with “Baa baaa dook dooooooooook” becoming my favorite horror phrase for years to come.
Guttural, emotionally progressive, and with director Jennifer Kent, we’re introduced to whole new levels of horror that a female voice can bring to the genre. The Babadook is a film that reminds you of what a confident film can do to your state of being. If we get more films like this, we won’t ever have to worry about the state of thrillers again.