*Note: I'll try to stay away from SPOILERS for the most part, but to really get into what I enjoyed about The Babadook, I may have to reference plot elements that could be seen as spoilers. If you want to enjoy this movie completely, you should watch it before you read this review. You've been warned.
Horror films are as popular as ever, but some people (i.e. me) might argue that there's not a lot of variety in the genre these days. It seems every film is now about ghosts or possession. I have enjoyed quite a few of these (The Conjuring and Insidious are standouts), but I have a hard time telling the difference between most of them (and it seems like Patrick Wilson is in every other one for some reason). They all feature spooky locales and things that go bump in the night. This is effective, and sometimes even scary, but it is not all that thought-provoking. Psychological horror has taken a backseat to ghosts and monsters that are without a doubt real (within the world of the film).
This is not to say that the popular films of late do not feature psychological elements. They certainly do, but only in that characters are driven crazy by ghosts and demons. At first glance, The Babadook appears to be just another scary monster featuring a boogeyman, although it is an admittedly super-creepy boogeyman. But it turns out to be much more than your standard horror film.
The Babadook has a fairly typical horror story as it is about a widow dealing with the grief of her dead husband (who died in a car accident the day their son was born) and her troubled son. You've seen this setup before: creepy kid with the stressed out mom. Then a creepy children's book featuring the titular Babadook somehow shows up on their bookcase. Then weird stuff starts happening as it seems more and more evident that the Babadook is going to make a visit.
That setup honestly left me less than enthralled with this movie at first. There was nothing too original about the scenario, and that kid (played by Noah Wiseman) was unbearably annoying. But, thankfully, The Babadook changes about halfway through. I'll elaborate about that change in a spoiler-filled section later.
|Now imagine this with the audio (*shudder*).|
Okay, SPOILERS from here on out. So it turns out that the Babadook is just the mother's personified (or should I say "monsterified") grief. The mother (an impressive Essie Davis) wrote children's books before her husband died, but she's been out of work since...except she wrote the book about the Babadook. "Babadook," by the way, is an anagram of "a bad book." She's been bottling up her grief to the point that she unconsciously created this boogeyman, and the film is the boiling point in which her grief tries to overcome her.
Once this became clear, other aspects of the movie made sense. All of the other characters, most notable her sister and an elderly neighbor, treat her with kid gloves. The neighbor even stops by to visit because she knows her son's birthday/husband's death day anniversary is tough for her. Knowing that she is pretty much going insane because of grief makes the movie much more interesting, and it actually excuses the problematic first half.
We're with the mother for most of the film, mainly in the beginning. This means we're seeing things through her eyes. That unbearably annoying child? Probably not as bad as it looks. His unnatural shrieking is really a projection of her grief and hatred. To be fair, the kid is still a bit annoying, but wouldn't you be if your mother was slowly becoming a grief monster? This made both Wiseman's and Davis's performances that much more impressive. For Wiseman, this meant being the sympathetic and the creepy kid; that's no small feat. For Davis, this allowed her to turn do a Jack Torrance-esque descent into madness.
Some might not dig this attempt at psychological and traditional horror, but I loved it. It was a perfect mix because it played so well on my expectations. It's rare for a horror film to trick me like this. Don't get me wrong, most horror films are effective to me (I get pretty easily creeped out by films like this), but they rarely sincerely surprise me. First-time writer/director Jennifer Kent definitely has my attention. The Babadook is that rare film that can scare you and make you think a bit. That's a welcome change of pace in horror.
Random Thoughts (still SPOILERS)
On a personal note, I was not cool with the dog getting killed. As the owner of a beloved small, white dog, that scene was incredibly hard to watch.
I got to watch this as part of an online screener from IFC, so I watched it on a laptop with headphones. The traditionalist in me was very much against this, but it turned out to be a surprisingly effective way to watch a horror film. The random thumps and creaks in the house messed with me much more when they happened directly in my ears instead of coming from the TV's speakers. It's a very intimate way to watch a fairly intimate movie. Who knew?
The Babadook receives a: