The Babadook’s reputation precedes it. Billed as one of the scariest films of all time, it is difficult for it to live up to the hype. And while it is a legitimately frightening film with plenty of “cover your eyes” and “try not to leap out of your seat and spill the drinks” moments, it is at its strongest when it plays more as a psychological thriller.
Amelia (Essie Davis), is a single mother who is struggling to raise her troubled son, Sam (Noah Wiseman) whose father died in a car crash while driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth to Sam. The weight of that tragedy hangs over the small family, and Amelia’s grief is palpable. She struggles with depression and sleeplessness in the wake of Sam’s nightmares about monsters in his room. One night Sam finds a mysterious book called The Babadook and asks Amelia to read it to him before bedtime. It is a sinister pop-up book that reads like the sort of threat a serial killer might leave to taunt you before horribly murdering you. Sam’s terror ramps up, and as his nightmares worsen so does Amelia’s sleeplessness. This is when strange things begin to happen.
I liked the film best when I wasn’t sure if the creaking and scuttling and swooping shadows were real or figments of a brain denied REM sleep. The sense of absolute exhaustion Amelia experiences, her descent into a nervous breakdown, watching her fight madness creates incredible tension. She’s stretched to breaking and writer/director, Jennifer Kent, gets the tone exactly right. In fact, remove the horror, and the film would have worked very well as an indie drama about the toll of grief, the suffocation of melancholia and the desperation one feels when raising a difficult, oppositional child alone. And in many ways that is the film Jennifer Kent has made and what makes The Babadook special — there is a genuine story about real people with real emotional motivations taking place under all the terror. They’re not just there to provide reaction shots and run and hide. Essie Davis gives an amazing performance, but snobbery about genre films kept her out of contention for any major awards.
The Babadook is much more than standard “things going bump in the night” fare, and I’m looking forward to watching it again to see what I missed.