With beyond-good word of mouth and a tremendous amount of hype, Australian director Jennifer Kent’s psychological chiller, The Babadook, has all but been declared the best thing to happen in the history of things. Whilst not quite as insidious and unsettling as its reputation may suggest, there’s no denying that it does mark a welcome return to actual psychological horror, following the condescending, jump scare laden “frights” of The Conjuring and the rest of what Nigel Floyd has perfectly summed up as the “cattle prod cinema” cycle.
Pacing itself very deliberately to build up a real sense of dread and unease, The Babadook achieves more than just occasionally shout “BANG!” whenever you begin to lose interest. It also does a rare thing for modern horror, by prioritizing story and character. Amelia, a single mother, distraught by the loss of her husband, struggles to raise her troubled son Samuel, who is thoroughly convinced that monsters lurk in their house. One night they discover a book, prophesizing the arrival of the Babadook, a Freddy Kruger esque monster who announces his arrival with a rumbling sound and 3 loud knocks. Samuel becomes increasingly paranoid that the Babadook will come to attack both him and his mother. His worrying behavior soon begins to wear down Amelia, who, whilst attempting to maintain a job, a social life and her own mental stability, starts to become sightly afraid (and even resentful) of her own child. Then matters are complicated slightly, when it turns out that the Babadook may be more than just a storybook character.
Where The Babadook really excels is in treating its audience with some respect. The scares are never cheap, the answers rarely clear cut, and it’s all open to a multitude of interpretations. Foregrounding character development and melancholic drama, the film is less about the titular boogeyman and more about startling fears that hit a little closer to home. That’s not to say that the Babadook himself isn’t a marvelous creation, he is, it’s just this isn’t so much about him, as it is about the relationship between a troubled son and a severely stressed out mother.
It’s a bit of a shame really, that the monster itself doesn’t make a few more appearances but it isn’t that type of horror film. Still, the creature is one of the greatest horror creations of the current generation. A terrific visual design that’s just familiar enough to be truly creepy, haunting physicality and movement and some really spooky sounds, all combine to make a properly memorable and uncanny character.
It’s not all good news though. Whilst it is all positively drenched in atmosphere, and there are some stand-out scary moments, a lot of the film consists of build up that just winds back down into nothing. The first few times it’s acceptable, but by the 90th time the film sets up a good scare only to instead have nothing at all happen, it starts to get a little bit irritating. Meanwhile calling the ending an “anticlimax” may be the understatement of the century. It makes sense thematically and ensures the film has a nice narrative arc for the central characters (who are wonderfully played by Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman by the way), but it doesn’t really deliver on the abject terror front. Horror can be hard to find a fitting conclusion for, but there’s something about The Babadook’s overly ambiguous ending that just feels downright unsatisfying. Which is a shame.
Regardless of this, as modern horror goes, it’s pretty damn good. Oh how sweet it would be to live in a world where this makes more money than Annabelle.
The Babadook (2014), directed by Jennifer Kent, is distributed in UK cinemas by Entertainment One, Certificate 15.