The Babadook is that rare movie that turns in on itself half way through. It takes everything that was ultimately frustrating or annoying during its first half and uses those elements to strengthen the narrative as a whole. There’s a sort of bizarre inverted bait and switch in play that will leave many people soured during the first hour or so but will give them cause to then go ahead and change their minds entirely by the time the credits roll. And if this technique for some reason doesn’t pique your curiosity, then how about this: The Babadook is really, really freaking creepy.
A number of years following the violent death of her husband, Amelia (Essie Davis) is already struggling to raise her troubled young son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) by herself when he begins to develop concerning obsessions with a seemingly imaginary monster. As she attempts to reconcile her son’s belief in monsters with the events concurring around her in the real world, Amelia skirts progressively closer to a total mental break down.
It is a combination of the two lead performances from Davis and Wiseman that ultimately make the movie function. Davis is utterly convincing as a pushover single mother who begins lilting soft chides towards Samuel in order to ‘discipline’ him and is gradually wound tighter and tighter into a frenzied and terrifying state. Wiseman, however, is just perfect as the godddamn little terror. Throughout, he plays Samuel as a spoilt little beast, an absolute sociopath in the making and this really sells Amelia’s gradual breakdown. They are both so good, in fact, that The Babadook‘s biggest problem is that for a long while it’s easier to hate these characters than enjoy the movie.
Nonetheless, the parental relationship is integral to the thrust of the narrative. This isn’t a horror movie about ghosts or monsters. It’s not about the supernatural or about Amelia’s dead husband. The Babadook is front to back a horror movie about being a single parent and the way in which it intertwines its scares with its themes is magnificent. There’s not a single ‘jump-scare’ to be found in The Babadook because all of its eeriness is drawn out and protracted, a careful extraction of horror from the circumstances presented. It is a dissection of the frustration that builds up and remains pent in the back of the mind of a single parent and which is represented by sheer terror – and that terror hits home hard.
The scares are telegraphed a mile away but that knowledge allows the tension to build without throwing a jump-scare at the audience. The sound design creaks and groans expertly – the use of both soundtrack and diegetic sound leaves a foreboding sense of discomfort thrumming under your skin. It’s also well worth noting that at no point does The Babadook resort to any sort of clumsy CG scares, allowing its practical effects to carry a real weight due to their in-camera presence. This is as old-school a horror film as we’ve seen in years and, honestly, it’s significantly better than many of its predecessors.
Although it may well run the risk of prematurely frustrating some viewers, The Babadook simultaneously broaches new ground for the horror genre at the same time as using tried and tested methods to evoke some of the most well-earned scares in years.
The Babadook is currently in wide release in theatres everywhere.