As I am sure you are all aware, Halloween is fast approaching, and with it comes an insatiable appetite for all things macabre and twisted. Be it in the form of TV shows, stories, parties, or movies, at this time of year we are driven to divulge in the darker recesses of our mind, and face the things that we fear in order to experience something primal and exciting within us. In regards to films, we often find ourselves re-visiting the classics of the horror genre (well, personally I do). A reason for this I believe is that much modern horror fails to crawl under the skin in quite the same way as old school terrors used to. Nothing feels, or perhaps ever feel, as fresh as the likes of The Exorcist, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween. Of course once in a while, modern horror does deliver something worthy of our attention. With quite astounding critical praise, Australian production, The Babadook, looked set to join this select band of modern horror that could well be deemed a classic of the genre. While certainly impressive, this is not quite the case for The Babadook.
Single mother, Amelia (Essie Davis), is left distraught after the violent death of her husband, Robbie (Daniel Henshall). Left alone to raise her troubled son, Samuel (Noah Wieseman), Amelia finds herself struggling to juggle all aspects of life, both in regards to work and her personal relationships. Things take a turn for the worse when she has to start dealing with Samuel’s aggressive belief in a monster lurking in their home, manifesting itself from a children’s book called ‘Mister Babadook’. Soon, however, Amelia begins to realise that her son may not be so troubled after all, as the presence of The Babadook becomes horrifyingly real.
This kind of set-up to a film is not quite as original as one would be led to believe by the vast praise that this film has received. What marks this story as worthy of telling is the attention it gives to the relationship between Amelia and Samuel, and the honesty it conveys in regards to the frustration that Amelia feels towards the socially awkward, and at times dangerously violent, Samuel (autism is somewhat hinted). Much work is done within the script and with the cast to make us feel quite frustrated for Amelia, as well as ensuring that Samuel is not a child that we initially warm to. It is a dark and complex relationship between this mother and son, as we begin to suspect that it is a chore for Amelia to love her son.
It is this central relationship which marks The Babadook as a horror film which is operating in a more unique field than the usual Hollywood output. Much more time and care is given to the character’s in the middle of all of the terror. The South Australian suburban setting feels both refreshing and old-fashioned, with the production design of the house simply screaming for demonic action. The performances from Davis and the young Wieseman as well are particularly impressive for a low budget horror movie; they both equally convey the pathos needed to create friction within the mother/son dynamic, as well as handling the sharp edged, jet black humour with ease. A vast degree of the tension comes more from the familial drama, with the spectator constantly wondering just how much more Amelia can take.
What the film struggles with is in its depiction of the actions of the titular character; Mister Babadook. The set-up is incredibly effective, with the design of the book itself proving very chilling. The teases of the appearance of the creature itself are impressively staged as well. When we catch glimpses of Mister Babadook, we are truly intimidated, unnerved, and oh so curious as to what the true form of the creature is. The shape its figure cuts chills you to the bone: top hat, long coat, sharp fingers and all. The issue with the creature comes down to the lack of a truly satisfying final confrontation.
Our patience throughout the film is ultimately not rewarded. The potential of this new monsters feels squander by a decision to forever keep him hidden. Now, this works to a degree to craft tension, but the film feels like it is building to a great reveal that it ultimately never gives. This may be in an attempt to keep the question of Amelia’s sanity forever hanging in the air, but I am not convinced by such a theory. By the final stages, it is quite clear that the threat from The Babadook is real, but the film itself seems unsure how it should form its final act. As a result, the final act becomes somewhat repetitive, frustratingly not granting us the satisfaction we feel we deserve. Subtlety is welcome in horror, but this seems to smell more like budget restrictions then anything else.
However, the only reason we expect so much of the finale is due to how well the film is crafted across its first two thirds. Début writer/director Jennifer Kent shows a great deal of promise in regards to her delicate attention to character, her skill with performers, and the sense of dread she manages to construct within a set-up which could have easily fallen in to more clichés. It is a shame that the finale turns out to be quite as tame as it is, for Mister Babadook is a new horror monster who certainly stirs the imagination but does not terrify quite as fully as many of the critics would have you believe. That as it may be, this is much more intriguing and worthy Halloween cinema outing than the likes of Annabelle.
4/5- The final third is frustratingly tame, but what comes before it is a chilling, and mostly original, horror movie, with welcome care and attention attributed to its characters.