William Friedkin, who directed The Exorcist, proclaimed The Babadook the most frightening film he’d ever seen. For part of my viewing experience, I thought the movie just might live up to those unreasonable expectations. It didn’t. Viewers expecting a horror film of unparalleled terror and originality may be disappointed by what is, essentially, like 2013’s The Conjuring, a straightforward but effective horror film made by a director who knows how to do it right—something unfortunately far too rare nowadays.
Essie Davis plays Amelia, a single mother still recovering from her husband’s untimely death. Her extended mourning period takes a severe toll on the relationship with her difficult, monster-obsessed son Samuel, played by Noah Wiseman. Both Davis and Wiseman turn in performances that alone make the film worth seeing. Davis channels nearly a decade of stress, turmoil and fear without ever admitting any of it aloud. Her face carries most of the film’s thematic weight and concerns about fear and denial wonderfully. Wiseman. Unlike so many horror movie children, Samuel feels real, for better or worse. Wiseman defies everything you might believe about amateurish child actors, somehow managing to convey hair-tearing annoyingness, genuine sweetness, and convincing terror depending on the situation.
Amelia is alone in the world but for Samuel, who only serves to make her life more difficult than it is already. Even her so-called friends make her feel like an outsider, lonely and resentful of their comparatively meaningless worries. The only positive force in her life, it seems, is elderly neighbor Mrs. Roach, who is always eager to help but still unable to relieve Amelia’s ballooning existential crisis. The horror begins when Amelia discovers an unfamiliar children’s book on Samuel’s shelf, called The Babadook. The book becomes too terrifying for Samuel to handle, so Amelia trashes it. Alas, it resurfaces with a few added pages detailing the precise ways this mysterious Babadook will drive Amelia mad and dispose of their little family unit.
As with so many horror films, the scares dry up a bit once the monster’s mythos is made concrete. The climax is still thrilling, but The Babadook is at its best towards its middle, when Amelia is reluctantly discovering a still-unknown monster that preys nicely upon her pre-existing anxieties. This is where director Jennifer Kent creates her best scares and her best set pieces without laying the thematic notions on more heavily. While it may not be as terrifying as the good Mr. Friedkin might have you expect, the film is certainly well-executed. For an independent horror flick, it’s sometimes a bit too dry and traditional, never quite taking any big risks visually or narratively, with the exception of its ending.
Although the setup may reek of unoriginality, The Babadook proves itself willing to steer away from the tropes, often towing the line between a more expressionistic psychological thriller and a meat-and-potatoes spin on boogeyman mythology. As the film comes to a close, it leans a little too close to the former, and I expect this unconventional ending will anger some looking for more typical fare. It may not transcend its genre like some of the greatest horror films do, but The Babadook at least doubles down on its thematic implications to create an ending not only unconventional but also oddly empowering to anyone struggling as a parent or mourning a loved one longer than society deems acceptable. Director Jennifer Kent didn’t reinvent the wheel, but she did make a damn good wheel and use it to say something worth saying.
Oh, and the movie is pretty damn creepy. That certainly doesn’t hurt either.
-By Guest Contributor Jeff Rindskopf