Movie Review: The Babadook


Dog in a horror movie? Never a good idea. Image via IGN

Unlike any other genre, except maybe for the romantic comedy, horror seems the most tied to its formula. I don’t mean that as an insult. There is a very particular way to be scared, and horror movies need to follow the formula to get the screams out. Then again, some of the best genre entries completely defied expectations.

This is partially what is so special about The Babadook: it is both completely new and very familiar. What makes The Babadook unique is that instead of stealing from the classics, it builds on them.

For a movie made on a tiny budget, Jennifer Kent’s first feature film sure does look good. Seriously, the other day NBC put on a live version of Peter Pan for some reason. It probably cost millions, yet you could see all the strings. The Babadook was partially funded on Kickstarter, yet it looks like the work of a major studio.

I don’t know much about Australian cinema (Crocodile Dundee doesn’t count), but The Babadook does everything it can to be more than just that Australian horror movie. It is a universal horror movie filled with universal fears. Are you afraid that somebody in your family might try to kill you? Good, so everybody else is as well. After many years, Amelia (Essie Davis) still can’t get over the death of her husband. Meanwhile, she is a single mother who must deal with her psychologically unstable son Sam (Noah Wiseman). One night, Amelia reads Sam a picture book that is actually rather scary. From there, the mysterious haunting of The Babadook begins.

Jennifer Kent could be on her way to becoming the Australian Tarantino. Like The Master himself, Kent wears her influences on her sleeves. At any given moment, The Babadook could be paying tribute to The ExorcistRosemary’s Baby, or The Shining. Sam is like a Danny Torrance clone while Amelia is like Wendy Torrance with a damaged maternal instinct. All of the stock situations, from the shaking beds to the possessed children, are all the more unsettling given the film’s many surprises. All I will say is that Sam is not the only crazy one here. In fact, he might not be that crazy at all.

The best horror films are the ones that both shatter and question all sense of normality. The Babadook is not a film for the impatient, because it spends its sweet ass time building up to an eventual pay off. I like this, it’s like all the movies I love from the 1970s would do. This is partially about building up a sense of dread, but more about giving a clearer picture of the world that surrounds the characters. Amelia and Sam are outsiders, and they are considered freaks to everybody else in town. Yet, when compared with the housewives that all wear the exact same outfits and spurt out the exact same platitudes, they seem a hell of a lot more interesting.

And yes, the last half hour when all hell breaks loose is worth watching the first hour in which events unfold at a snail’s pace. I have a feeling that first chunk would improve significantly on a second viewing.

The Babadook is a great looking horror film from a director who obviously cares a lot about this genre. I guess I should also mention that Sam spends a lot of the film carrying around a homemade crossbow. This usually gets him into a lot of trouble. We never really know if he’s actually shooting at anything. Let’s keep it that way.