Jennifer Kent’s feature film debut, The Babadook, is a horrifying look into the downward spiral of a mother’s sanity as she struggles with her inner demons as well as the ones that lurk in the shadows. It’s a solid first outing from the Australian director as it centers on a single mother, plagued by the violent death of her husband, who battles with her son’s fear of a monster hiding in the house only to discover a sinister presence all around her. With it being one of the most talked about genre films of the year, how would it stack up to all the hype?
What the film does great is that it actually spends time developing its two main characters—Amelia and her son Samuel—peeling back the layers of what their lives are like after the death of Samuel’s father. Life is far from easy for Amelia now that her husband is gone as she struggles with raising a child all on her own, especially with Samuel acting out his frustrations on everyone around him. It’s not an over the top, sugar-coated relationship between a mother and son as Kent is far more interested in showing us what the darker side looks like. In doing so, when things finally unravel for this poor family it’s all the more terrifying.
One night, Samuel finds a children’s book entitled Mister Babadook and asks his mother to read it to him. And although she can’t recall where it came from, she begins reading what few words are found inside the pages and quickly realizes that it’s far from innocent. Filled with menacing words and eerie pictures of a monster springing from the shadows, Samuel becomes obsessively terrified of the creature who calls himself The Babadook. But is the monster just something a boy’s damaged mind conjured up in order to cope with the pain surrounding his dead father? Or is there really something sinister tip-toeing through the night while they both sleep?
It’s from this moment forward where the film battles between being a psychological slow-burn and that of typical haunted house fare. If The Babadook wasn’t being so brilliantly carried by the wonderful Essie Davis—who plays the mother in the film—then I’m afraid The Babadook doesn’t really have much of a leg to stand on because the scares and its titular monster are just plain boring. I wish Kent would have just cut out all of the haunted house nonsense and focused on Amelia losing her mind within the walls of her own home. That was the only part of The Babadook that is truly terrifying, the rest is just fluff and creepy noises.
Beyond Davis’ frightening and masterful performance, the scares are few and far between if there are any at all. The film is much more powerful when the only thing you see is The Babadook pulling on the strings of Amelia’s sanity. It almost relies too heavily on a creature that occasionally pokes its head out of the dark corners of a room rather than the one true monster in the movie—the mother.
The Babadook is a mixed bag of horrors, one that got caught up in the hype machine far too early. It’s certainly a solid debut from Kent, shining a light on the notion of battling your inner demons and locking them away in the basement where they stir in the dark, waiting to escape. And while it may not be the “most terrifying film in years” like a lot of people seem to be making it out to be, it features an unforgettable performance that, at times, takes it to a place that is rarely touched in the genre.