While many of the best horror movies feature threats that are metaphors for our real fears, The Babadook introduces its most scary concept long before the bogeyman of the title – a creature resembling a Tim Burton concept sketch for Freddy Krueger come to life – even shows up. It’s certainly a fear that I, as a recently married man, have: what if one day you have a son, and he’s an annoying asshole?
It might not be his fault, even – young Noah Wiseman’s Samuel was born on the day his father died in a car crash getting mom to the hospital. But he’s an enervating little prick nonetheless: some seven years later, he’s a wide-eyed paranoid, annoyingly literal, obsessed with magic, and a surprising genius at making homemade weapons that can do some serious damage. All because he sees monsters at night, and he wants to be prepared; and all of which makes him a liability to his teachers, other kids, and his mother’s ability to sleep through the night (or masturbate, as she tries unsuccessfully once).
That Wiseman isn’t a particularly strong child actor – he often smiles when he ought to be screaming, and vice-versa – is actually a plus, as it makes us viewers lose patience with him too. When his mom finally snaps and tells him to eat shit, it’s a cathartic moment akin to Louis CK joking that his kids are jerks. You’d never deliberately treat an actual child that way, just as many of you would probably never shoot the bad guy in action scenario, but seeing it in fiction – fuck yeah.
Hardcore horror fans may start to lose patience at a certain point, but it’s all part of the plan. By the time a mysterious pop-up book shows up that appears to describe Samuel’s night terrors to a tee, as a creature named Mr. Babadook, you’re ready for some shit to go down. And it does.
As an aside, the “Babadook” name is derived from the noise the monster initially makes – a “baba” rumble followed by three “dook!” door-knocks. I must say, though, that despite director Jennifer Kent’s insistence that she didn’t want the film to feel specifically Australian, that monster name really could only come from one country. She might as well have called it “The Chuzzwozzer.”
The strength of Essie Davis, who plays mother Amelia, is in her ability to go from warm mother, to frazzled insomniac, to black-eyed monster (seemingly without the addition of any special contacts) and back, effortlessly, depending upon the scene. It’s the sort of performance where you wonder how the hell it could have been so consistently degenerative if the film were shot out of order, as most are (the limited number of locations probably helps). For a while, too, the strength of the movie is that it hedges its bets on whether the Babadook is a real thing, or just a manifestation of psychosis on the part of mother, son or both (sadly, it does eventually pick a side and end the ambiguity). Though by the time they both see it, it’s a shame Amelia NEVER ONCE says, “Sorry I didn’t believe you, kid.”
|Yeah, screw this kid.
Once Kent starts to ratchet up the terror, it’s clear what her gameplan has been – to have you settle into a mundane routine so you know exactly which parts are being messed with, and when to anticipate the terror striking. Like the pop-up book has literally done, she has also subconsciously given you a complete gameplan for what’s coming – the extent to which that is or isn’t fulfilled is what will tug at your mind and your nerves for the rest of the running time.
With a creative creature and a confident grasp of what works, Kent seems a director worth watching; her only misstep here is the all-too-tempting sequel hook gratuitously inserted at the end. If a movie merits a sequel, writers will be able to figure out when the time comes how the story continues; we viewers don’t need one last scene that makes no sense in context just to tell us you want a franchise.