I’m quite late to the game in watching The Babadook but it was quite nice to let the dust settle from critics clamouring to declare it the greatest horror movie ever made, that I could at least try and approach it without ridiculous expectations. While the crazy expectations such acclaim can give a film, there are still many such horrors that have met or exceeded my high hopes – REC, The Mist, Let the Right One In, all massively acclaimed but I loved them still. Unfortunately I found The Babadook was not able to live up to its reputation. Though I’m not sure if it ever could have.
Following Amelia, an exhausted widow who balances her job as a care home assistant with single-handedly raising Samuel, a little shit of a son who, aged six years old, has a preoccupation with fighting off a monster and so builds plot devices from scrap around the house that fire heavy balls, darts and so on like a miniature Australian John Kramer. Unfortunately his teachers aren’t so impressed with his ingenuity when he takes his dart gun to school, pushing Amelia even closer to some sort of breaking point. Luckily, just as things seem unbearably awful for this poor innocent woman, a creepy storybook mysteriously appears in Samuel’s bookcase, called The Babadook, the sort of thing that would have been created if Dr Seuss had taken a really bad acid trip one night. Naturally, this story does nothing to calm Samuel’s monster fantasies and as everyone gets completely worn out and stressed out it seems more and more likely that The Babadook is paying the household a visit.
This is far from a terrible film; produced on a relatively slim budget of $2 million it looks fantastic and the two main characters are played brilliantly – especially Noah Wiseman as Samuel who is not only a child actor who isn’t pailful to watch, but is genuinely affecting and seems to take the schizophrenic switches from screaming brat to caring son in his stride. So too, the writer/director Jennifer Kent has cleverly acknowledged that even when we’ve spent 20 minutes pulling our hair out watching the boy screaming and kicking, the SECOND she shows him scared and crying, our hearts involuntarily melt to become putty in her hands. But after seeing so many 5 star reviews, a 98% Rotten Tomatoes rating and so on, niggling issues that I’d usually pass off become sticking points. Secondary characters are terribly two-dimensional: one or two are kind of stuck in their own world, too busy to pay full attention to Amelia’s issues which is realistic, but when she’s turned away from a police station by officers who think it’s hilariously contrived for a visibly stressed, bedraggled young widow to be worried that someone’s stalking her and her child it’s one of those moments where the I think the film would be markedly improved if the whole scene was removed. One or two other issues I had would require me massively spoiling the movie which I certainly won’t do, but suffice to say I was at one point rolling my eyes waiting for a certain character to say “I’m free now!” & dissolve into a thousand butterflies as some music reaches a passionate crescendo.
Onto The Babadook itself, the design is a cool throwback to the horror movies of the 1920’s with Lon Chaney and co., with extreme make-up and wide eyes that always look far more unsettling than they ought to. The movement of the monster is decidedly low-fi, throwing back to the earlier cinema, not least the films made by Georges Méliès around the 1890’s/1900’s which are actually incorporated into a dream sequence at one point. But despite all these cool visuals and a creepy design there never really seemed to be any particularly scary moments. Many people have already picked up on the admirable avoidance of cheap jump scares, but it’s a shame that nothing scary takes their place.
Despite what sounds like a pretty negative review I’m going to say it clearly – this is a very good film. Not only given the budget; it is a genuinely good film regardless. But it is far from the scariest I’ve seen, even from the last couple of years, and it is certainly not without its flaws. Had I picked it up unwittingly in HMV having never heard of it I don’t think I’d have been blown away necessarily, but I’d have been much more impressed I’m sure. That’s of course no fault of the film itself so it’s a shame, but I ended up underwhelmed – ultimately while The Babadook is among the better horrors of the last few years I feel this is an unfortunate case where a film’s reputation has become too much for it to live up to.