The Babadook (8 out of 10) Written and directed by Jennifer Kent; starring Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman and Tim Purcell; Not Rated; in limited release and VOD; running time: 93 minutes.
Much like comedies, horror movies are one of the more difficult genres to successfully pull off. If the script and directing aren't tight enough or the timing is off by a hair, what was supposed to be an incredibly tense moment can easily turn unintentionally humorous which is why so many horror movies fall into the "so-bad-they're-good" category. Not that they aren't a lot of fun, but "Wow, that was a really good movie" is not something most people immediately think as they exit the theater. Not so with "The Babadook". Not only does it deliver solid chills and scares, it also dives deep into the human psyche and examines familial relationships and the long-term effects of grief.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother struggling to raise her overactive and trouble-seeking son, Sam (Noah Wiseman). Still grieving over the loss of her husband who died in a car crash on the way to the hospital to deliver Sam, Amelia both loves and shuns her young son whom she quite obviously still blames for the loss of life that tore the family apart. Sam is at the age when he sees monsters everywhere and insists Amelia constantly check under the bed, in the closets and pretty much everywhere to ensure that none will get him while he sleeps. Not satisfied with a monster-free room, Sam builds various weapons to protect himself and his mother for threat he knows will be coming soon. That threat, is the titular Babadook who is introduced through a creepy pop-up book that has mysteriously shown up on his bookshelf. The creature is released into the house once Amelia reads the book and the Babadook wreaks havoc on the two of them in an attempt to claim Sam's soul. Delirious from lack of sleep due to the influences of the Babadook, Amelia begins to question her sanity and the safety of her own child which leads to a showdown with this evil creature and her own psyche.
I saw this movie at Sundance earlier this year, and while I absolutely loved it, I was anxious to see it again when it got a wider release because I wanted to see if the warm fuzzies I had about it would carry over after another viewing. I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only did I enjoy it more, I was also able to pull apart more of the story and analyze the deeper meanings that first-time director Jennifer Kent was trying to get across here.
I would be remiss to not immediately give high praise to Kent for putting together such a wonderful and multi-layered story that powerfully resonates on screen. She has given us not only a masterful screenplay but also tight and lean directing. There isn't a moment of screen time that is wasted here as each scene and shot is set up to perfectly deliver the story. Considering that this is her freshman debut, I can barely wait to see what she will be able to accomplish next. We are very easily looking at the next Kathryn Bigelow here, so keep an eye on her career.
Both Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman are great, but Wiseman deserves special credit. Despite how young he is, he truly owns the movie and gives the best performance in it. Certain scenes require acting chops that few adults could pull off believably, and he nails them! While none of what he does carries the subtlety of What Haley Joel Osment did in "The Sixth Sense" the performance is just as good, and I want to see this kid in other stuff.
Of course, no horror movie would be complete without the right bad guy, and the Babadook itself is one of the scariest things I have ever seen on screen. My biggest complaint is that he spends such little time in the movie. I fully understand and appreciate the extremely limited budget this movie had to work with, but if there is one failing, it is that we only ever see the creature once. Yes, it's a great reveal and one that scared the crap out of me, but there should have been more. Kent still provides plenty of tension and drama by dropping hints that it's present, but nothing ever comes close to that one and only shot. While I disagree with a friend who said it all felt like one big build up with no payoff, I do concur that there were a lot of missed opportunities.
What the Babadook itself represents (or if the monster ever existed in the first place) will be something that people will discuss and dissect long after leaving the theater, and this is where Kent's script truly shines. The scarred relationship she built between a mother who never got over the death of her husband and the son she has trouble even looking at because of it is masterful. Amelia's search for redemption over the Babadook to prove her humanity is both terrifying and beautiful, and the last few minutes of the film still haunt me months later.
"The Babadook" isn't perfect, but it's not trying to be. Much like the flawed characters contained within its story, it proves that beauty can be found even in the depths of terror. It uses its facade of horror to present not only an entertaining experience but also to send a warning to let go of the past and quit dwelling on things we have no control over.
All that, plus it will creep the hell out of you!