The Babadook (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
A mother and son’s nightly ritual involves checking the closet, looking under the bed, and reading light-hearted stories where a hero defeats a monster. This is because seven-year-old Sam (Noah Wiseman) is convinced that there is a monster in their house—one that likes to come out at night and prevents him from sleeping. Amelia (Essie Davis) considers her son’s behavior as a phase… until Sam hands her a pop-up book called “Mister Babadook,” filled with creepy and violent black-and-white images. Soon, the mother is convinced that there really is a presence in the house.
Beware of superlatives: “The Babadook,” written and directed by Jennifer Kent, is a decent horror movie, equipped with one or two good scares, but it does not do anything groundbreaking to advance the genre. The problem with the picture is the former half is stronger, its ability to create a sense of dread within a two-person family with a history of tragedy, and the latter half is by-the-numbers horror movie elements like a person pulling out her own teeth, a bed shaking erratically, a bout of possession.
Its mood and atmosphere make us curious of its secrets. Is a paranormal phenomenon truly occurring or is what we are seeing an extreme form of neglect to the point where it feels surreal or magical? We watch closely—during the first half anyway—as to dissect what is really going on. The boy often throws tantrums. The educators in charge at Sam’s school say that the boy has “significant behavioral problems.” He likes to perform magic but at the same time he has weapons that can seriously injure. At one point, he pushes another kid off a treehouse for being teased.
One of the picture’s limitations is its failure to show us its characters’ lives before things went bad. Thus, we are unable to gauge the changes before and after the so-called Babadook has appeared to have taken over their lives. There is talk about the father dying the day the mother gave birth to her son. Have Amelia and Sam been this unhappy for seven years? The ending brings up more questions than answers. The writer-director drops the ball, shamelessly leaving room for a sequel.
Viewers often minimize the importance of getting a feel of the characters’ history. Here, it is important that we have an idea. For instance, because I was unable to feel that Sam is probably a happy boy before his sleepless nights, at times I got the impression that I was watching a young person who will likely grow up to become a psychopath. The way the characters are written, it is very difficult to relate or sympathize to either protagonists.
“The Babadook” is creepy in parts, well-photographed, and the performances are solid. However, it is only scary and very curious up to about forty minutes in. Look closely and you will notice that as the material loses power, louder noises, shrieking, and yelling are more often employed. Such a technique is almost always used to hide the fact that there is really nothing worthwhile happening on screen.