The Babadook Movie Review
Written by Ted McCarthy
Released by IFC Midnight
Written and directed by Jennifer Kent
2014, 93 minutes, Not rated
Essie Davis as Amelia
Noah Wiseman as Samuel
Daniel Hanshall as Robbie
It’s a rare and wonderful discovery to find a movie that resonates with me on a personal level. That is to say, one that allows me to draw a specific connection from the film I’m watching to an event or a time in my own life. Many years ago I, like most kids, I think, loved to have stories read to me before bedtime. I remember one night in particular, my mom was reading a story to me and my sister that involved a young samurai who came home from war to find his wife waiting for him, looking as beautiful as the day he left. They spent a wonderful night together, but he awoke the following morning to find that his wife had actually killed herself after thinking he had died in battle, and he was lying in bed next to her long-rotting corpse. This ending of the story came out of nowhere, and as my mom read about the woman’s missing skin and the worms slithering in her empty eye sockets, my sister and I held our ears and started crying. Such is the powerful combination of the written word and a child’s imagination.
I haven’t thought of this incident in years. But The Babadook brought me back there…
A few years after the car crash that killed her husband, Amelia (Essie Davis) lives in her large, semi-decrepit house with her young son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Not only under the stress of an underpaying nursing job, she has to deal with Samuel’s insistence that there are ghosts in their house. The bright spot in their relationship is the nightly reading of bedtime stories together. One night, however, Samuel finds a mysterious red book titled Mister Babadook. A simple, picture-heavy pop-up book (it looks awesome), Mister Babadook tells of the eponymous monster that, once let into the house, will terrorize and kill its inhabitants. After Samuel is traumatized by her reading it (in the scene that brought me back to my above childhood story), Amelia destroys the book, only to have it show up again and again, along with ghostly appearances of the tall, clawed, top-hat wearing Babadook.
The movie reminded me a lot of the American version of The Ring from a few years back. That one also dealt with a single mom (Naomi Watts) who has to try to protect her eccentric kid from a seemingly innocuous object (that being a mysterious videotape instead of a children’s book). I loved that film and actually found it to be surprisingly scary, largely due to the filmmakers’ restrained approach to the material. The really terrifying and disturbing stuff was shown only in brief flashes (like the deformed girl in the closet - yuck), and yet a sense of dread permeated the whole thing. First-time writer/director Jennifer Kent (expanding her short film Monster) handles this film in a similar manner. It would have been easy to overdo it on the jump scares or get in our faces with a shitty CGI monster (the way Mama did last year). But camera shots that linger on dark corners, scratching noises coming from inside closets, and the silhouette of the villain of the title are all far more effective in amping up the creep factor. And that book! Serious kudos to the designers of the pop-up book. You have to see it for yourself, it’s just amazing.
Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman are both excellent in the lead roles. I’ve heard complaints about how annoying Wiseman is in his portrayal of Samuel, but if you’ve spent any amount of time around boys his age, I think you’ll agree that he nailed his character. He’s just a boy who wants to protect his mother from the danger he sees, and just like most kids, he simply can’t comprehend the stress and grief she is simultaneously experiencing. Davis, likewise, is great as the put-upon widowed mom who is at her wits’ end trying to balance her love for her son and her frustration at the life they’ve been dealt. It’s a sometimes heartbreaking dynamic, and will strike home with anyone who’s ever been run ragged by parenthood.
With solid acting, some inventive camera work, great atmosphere, and restrained direction (gorehounds, look elsewhere), The Babadook is a great pick to watch in a dark room on a cold night, and is definitely one of the most satisfying horror movies of this year.
*Afterthought: I still love to have a good, spooky short story read to me before bed, though nowadays they often come from the NoSleep Podcast, which I highly recommend checking out on iTunes!