The most feted horror film of the year, The Babadook is an exercise in psychological horror that mixes elements from Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Delving into the fraying emotional states of a woman and her special-needs son, director Jennifer Kent spins a harrowing yarn about the terror that accompanies the pleasures of motherhood — the fear that you will be unable to do enough, to muster all the spirit and goodheartedness that are required, to care for your child.
The Babadook is the story of single mom Amelia (Essie Davis) and her boy, Sam (Noah Wiseman). She’s a widow and he’s a handful — he doesn’t play well with other children, and she’s forced to remove him from school due to behavioral issues. Moreover, he’s a needy kid who wakes her up in the middle of the night to deal with the monsters he imagines in the house. It doesn’t help matters when he finds a pop-up book called Mister Babadook that tells of a creature all clad in black, with a stovepipe hat and a manic grin that displays a mouth full of unsettlingly tiny teeth, that insinuates himself into your happy home like the Cat in the Hat’s more malevolent cousin. (Compare to Lon Chaney’s character in images from the famous lost film London After Midnight.) The book’s origins are mysterious, but as time goes on, Amelia and Sam find that the mind-flaying creature it depicts seems to be real.
Unfortunately, The Babadook isn’t nearly as frightening as it could be. Kent has the unfortunate urge to overexplain the film’s subtext, which makes the monster’s presence more metaphorical and thus less purely frightening. (I felt like I could hear Kent in the theater with me, demurring: “Well, it’s a horror film but it’s not that kind of horror film.”) Worse, once she lays it all out — and this happens by the halfway point — there are no surprises still to be had.
Since The Babadook doesn’t work especially well as pure horror, it’s fortunate that so many other aspects of its execution are impressive. Kent puts Amelia and Sam in a house that renders on screen as a largely monochrome environment, its colors carefully chosen from a spectrum of blues and greys, the better for layering in their visions of a nitrate-tinged monster inspired in part by the films of George Méliès and Lotte Reiniger. She has an eye for interesting frame compositions, with the camera placed at just slightly odd angles, which gives the images a slightly unnerving effect when they’re cut together. And as impressive as her visual control is the sound design, which combines a chattering insectile drone and gasping, hacking vocal effects into a frightening aural signature for the Babadook himself.
Finally, the performances are spectacular — Wiseman gives an utterly convincing performance as a genuinely annoying kid that could be a fluke but is more likely to be the product of genuinely sharp and empathetic direction. And Davis, who has labored for years playing minor roles in major films, digs into her character, transitioning gradually and convincingly from gentle but put-upon mom to a veritable monster in her own right. There’s plenty to hold the interest even if the final results are stylish, not scary.