The Babadook (2014)
I had read some very good reviews of this film, and it had received much critical acclaim, including praise when it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival. I don’t mind a bit of psychological horror now and again, also Australian cinema often guarantees a good pedigree, and actors that are not too familiar. I went ahead and added it to my birthday list, and was pleased to receive it as a gift on the 16th. With nothing much on TV late last night, I settled down to watch it.
Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, the film features a strong female lead in the presence of Essie Davis, who appeared in some of ‘The Matrix’ films, as well as in ‘Girl With A Pearl Earring.’ She plays the troubled mum, Amelia, whose husband died in a car crash as he was taking her to hospital to give birth to her son, Samuel. Once a writer, she now has to work in a care home to support the family, as well as having to deal with her strange six-year old son, and his unusual behaviour. Sam is hard to like, difficult at school, obsessed by monsters, and rarely sleeps. He is played by the young actor, Noah Wiseman, a boy gifted with an unusual appearance who some may remember from ‘The Gift’. (2013)
Reviews of this film often describe it as ‘slow-burning.’ That is accurate indeed, as the scene-setting drags on, showing us the difficult relationships between mother and son, mother and her sister, and son and other children. We also get a glimpse of Amelia at work, and her kindness to her elderly neighbour.
There are plenty of standard devices to be expected from a film of this type, and The Babadook doesn’t let us down. They have a small cute dog, the house is old and rather sprawling, and of course has a large basement too. This basement is where the dead husband’s effects are stored, and is out of bounds to young Sam.
Much of the introduction centres on Sam’s obsession with monsters, and how he makes strange devices to fight them with. He has a catapult that he wears on his back, and a mini-crossbow too. At night, he waits up for the monsters, refusing to sleep, and often ending up in his mother’s bed, making it hard for her to rest too. His issues cross over into his life at school, where he has no friends, and exhibits behavioural problems. One night, Amelia is trying to settle her son to sleep, and he chooses a book from the shelf, for her to read him a bedtime story. The title of the book is (you guessed it…) ‘The Babadook.’ This is pronounced ‘Baa-Baa Dook – as in book, which I found strange, as I had been thinking ‘Babba-Duke.’ But that might just be me.
The book is unfamiliar to Amelia, and as soon as she opens it, the strange rhymes and dark imagery inside make her realise that she has never seen it before. It contains pop-up pictures of a monster, and warnings about how nobody should let in the Babdook, or they will wish that they were dead. She closes the book, but the damage is done, and Sam is obsessed with the story, and convinced that the monster will get in, and destroy them both. At this point, I could continue with a conventional review. I could talk about the spiral into madness experienced by both Sam and Amelia, how the boy has to be taken out of school, and Amelia cannot sleep and is unable to work properly.
But I won’t do that, because like me, you are still waiting for the scary bits, that psychological horror you have been promised. It would be a long wait, believe me. When The Babadook finally appears, it is not that scary, unfortunately. At least if you have ever seen a genuinely scary film, or a really creepy psychological horror, you are very unlikely to be scared, or even feel a little jumpy. Despite the best efforts from the small cast, the big reveal is just not terrifying enough to justify either the concept, or the lengthy build-up. As well as that, Noah Wiseman does such a good job of making Sam unlikable, that I didn’t really care what happened to him, and Essie Davis spends so long in a dream-like state, that when her character turns nasty, she just seems like a normal angry mum.
Just to put the tin hat on it, (as we say over here) we are left with a silly ending that makes the whole thing feel like a comedy instead. A film that looks good, promises much, yet sadly delivers little. Let me know what you think, if you have seen it. Here’s a clip.
(This is a link to a review on Curnblog.com. James really loved this film.)