Title: The Babadook
Director: Jennifer Kent
Widely praised by genre audiences and critics alike, the Australian film The Babadook arrived on DVD with high (probably too high) expectations. Still grief-stricken seven years after her husband's death in an auto accident, Amelia (Essie Davis), who was pregnant with son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) at the time of the crash, has recurring nightmares of the incident and struggles with her life as a working single mother. Removed from school due to his erratic behavior, Samuel's violent outbursts also seriously harm his cousin and alienate his aunt, placing the entire burden of his care on his already stressed out mother. At home, the boy invents impressive weaponry that no real world child his age could make, each created to fight the monsters he sees in his room at night. The moviegoer is clearly meant to empathize with Samuel's situation but man is this kid a pain, easily one of the most annoying children in film history. The home environment worsens after Samuel chooses "The Babadook" (a selection Amelia doesn't recognize) from his bookshelf and is treated to the bedtime story from which nightmares are made. Inside and even outside the home, both mother and son begin to see and hear the threatening Babadook figure, a creature that feeds on disbelief and has the ability to inhabit the bodies of its victims. Mayhem both physical and psychological ensues.
First time director Kent is able to get fine performances all around out of her actors, even when Wiseman's character proves exasperatingly unable to comply with even the simplest parental request. Many of his antics are over the top, but his desperation to learn something about his dead father (about whom Amelia refuses to speak or acknowledge) is a believable motivation. To the degree that cinematic depictions of mental illness are realistic, Davis navigates grief, depression, murderous rage, and defiance with equal aplomb. From sound, to set design, photography, and cinematography, Kent surrounding herself with talent. It a great looking and great sounding film. The only real problem I had with the effects department was when the Babadook was crawling on the walls and ceiling. Second-rate CGI takes the viewer out of the film and that stuff could have safely been cut from the film altogether. For a movie lauded for not relying on jump scares, there sure were a lot of jump scares in The Babadook.
Some hints are subtly placed. Viewers wondering just where the book came from in the first place might recall the offhand comment during the children's party that Amelia herself was a published children's author. Also, during the police station visit, Amelia's blackened fingers can speak to at least two very different possibilities, either they got that way disposing of the burned book or she was the one that repaired and revised it.
As much movie character as prop, the Babadook children's book itself is a clever creation. Memorable imagery, mostly related to the Babadook in its various guises, also populates the screen. The movie isn't exactly filled with frightening moments but rarely can placing in frame a simple hat and coat inspire such viewer unease. Sometimes the camera is obviously focused directly on the image (at the police station, for instance) but they're also frequently incorporated into existing shadows on the sly.
From grief, guilt, and loss to pathological parental fears and childhood terrors, The Babadook's layered narrative exploits many (perhaps too many) themes common to the horror genre. Director Kent also leaves to the viewer's own interpretation whether the Babadook is indeed a supernatural entity or a very vivid hallucination brought on by severe mental breakdown. Either conclusion is supported by the movie and there's certainly no defined series of clues one way or the other from the filmmaker. This deliberate ambiguity is a strength in many movies but it's rather unsatisfactory when applied to the Babadook story. If he's meant to be a fearsome monster his ineffectualness leaves him in no danger of becoming a classic horror bogeyman and if he's a figment of mutually fevered imagination then viewers are completely denied the dark ending that the material naturally builds toward.
The Babadook is by no means a bad movie, and I look forward to seeing what Jennifer Kent comes up with in the future, but I just can't believe that it measures up to the considerable indie hype that's been built up around it. Some reviewers opine that we need to get fully behind movies like The Babadook if we want to break the cycle of endless mainstream Insidious and The Conjuring clones but unfortunately I don't see this film as meriting that much special regard.