True inspiration in genre filmmaking can be hard to come by. Genre films become what they are by following in the footsteps of others, playing off similar tropes and script mechanics in an effort to improve on the formula or find a new and interesting way to spin it. The horror genre is arguably the most exploited of genre categories, with its long history of fads and movements (slashers in the 80’s, self-reference in the 90’s, torture porn in the 00’s and so on) constantly reinventing itself to try and goose its audience one more time. Australian actor turned director Jennifer Kent is the latest to attempt to take horror in a different direction with her feature debut The Babadook, a film that takes supernatural horror and shunts it off into a novel course.
The film concerns the troubled lives of single mother Amelia (Essie Davis) and her child Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who was born the night her husband died in a car accident en route to the hospital. Samuel is afflicted with night terrors, convinced that his room is also the home of some unknown monster, and his behavior in his waking hours is equally erratic. As a result, Amelia is pushed to the very brink herself, stressed and sleep deprived and unable to get a hold on her life. Their psychological torment becomes manifest after the discovery of an unfamiliar book, a purportedly children’s pop-up book called Mister Babadook with a sinister and disturbing presence at its core Samuel is convinced is the evil that has taken residence in his bedroom. Only this time, that presence begins to make itself known not just to the son, but the mother as well.
The Babadook is not really about the creature from which it gets its name. The central evil of horror films is often a metaphor for something deeper, and that is very much the case here. The babadook is a stand-in for the significant psychological pressures that can befall a single mother, especially a single widow, as it creates a kind of paralysis within her that disrupts her life and threatens to end her relationship with her son, possibly violently. Much of what torments the family is straight out of horror movies 101, from the creepy object that won’t go away no matter how often or how thoroughly destroyed it is to the unknown figure lurking in the shadows to insectile hallucinations, but the difference is in the characters. Essie Davis’ Amelia is so profoundly run down and tired and stressed that she becomes an entirely different kind of sympathetic figure than what is normally expected in films like this. Each time she tries to explain her inaction to her son by pleading for a few hours of sleep, it is impossible not to feel empathetic, even as her terror of a son deprives her of calm. Even as she loses her admittedly tenuous grip on reality, giving into threats real or imagined, she remains a compelling figure of commiseration.
Additionally equal to the task is Kent’s direction. Her eye for camera angles and editing is sharp, and her sense of sound design is especially on point, knowing exactly when to ratchet up the tension with the score only to cut it off in an instant. She assaults the senses with machine gun cuts and montages that feel over before they begin. She always knows exactly where to point the lens. Technically, The Babadook is clearly the product of someone who knows what a horror film needs to succeed, which gives the necessary support to allow the accomplished performances of its two leads and the deft thematic elements to shine.
Oddly, it is possible that the set-up is in a way slightly too good, as when the rubber hits the road and the Babadook jumps from page to flesh, the monster itself is a bit of a letdown. The design is genius in its own way, a pop-up book come to life that looks disturbingly two-dimensional and moves in fits and starts, but the execution is lacking. Kent does generally take the Alien approach and attempt to conceal the monster as much as possible, but when it does show its form, the impact of it is lacking. It is not something to ridicule, but for whatever reason the monster itself does not inspire nearly as many emotions on screen as it did off.
For the majority of its run on the silver screen, The Babadook is a marvel. a moody piece of dark blues and greys, of dirt and grime, of blood and sweat and terror. It innovates in its treatment of its heroine and its metaphorical and symbolic look at grief and depression. It excites with its editing and use of sound. Kent has arrived fully formed on the horror scene with her first directorial effort, which could have become a masterpiece of the form if it had managed to be more viscerally terrifying. The monster is a case of a solid design with underwhelming execution, and is the only aspect of the film that disappoints. Had the horror managed to make its way beyond the characters on which it was inflicted, The Babadook could have transcended its genre’s limitations. Instead, it is a worthy addition to the horror world, but not all that much more than that.