The Babadook (2014)

Directed By: Jennifer Kent
Written By: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis
  Daniel Henshall
  Tim Purcell
The Babadook

Heralded as the new voice of horror by the likes of Kim Newman et al, this Aussie chiller boasts one of the creepiest trailers of the past year, and a villain that could be this generation’s Freddy Krueger. Almost universally praised, and after shocking audiences at Frightfest, finally, it’s getting a well-deserved release. With the choices for Halloween horror movies comprising of just this, Annabelle and Ouija, it’s certainly slim pickings this year. But, hey, we’ve always got the Saw anniversary re-release to look forward to, right?

The Babadook is the debut feature from writer-director Jennifer Kent. Based on her 2005 short Monster, the premise surrounds a single mother (the excellent Essie Davis) and her bratty child (Noah Wiseman), who are haunted by the titular creature, after mysteriously discovering his book on the shelf one night before bed. Partly funded by Kickstarter, the film is set in Australia but exists in the dark, grey world of nightmares, with a dull palette and a constant threat of rain.

Suffice to say, The Babadook is a different kind of mainstream horror movie. It’s harsh, slow-moving and the scares are few and far between. However, that alone does not make it quite the masterpiece others have claimed it to be. There are certain elements that work, including the book itself, the design of which is great. A creepy, nursery rhyme jingle is well-utilised and the imagery is strong throughout. The murder of a family pet is startling, and there are some genuinely tense, creepy moments as the creature starts to take hold of the house.

However, the film suffers from a predictable trajectory that is obvious from the outset. There’s also a significant cop-out towards the end that turns it into a different kind of story entirely, and one which we’ve seen too often before. While the trailer, which is arguably creepier than the film itself, hints at a great money shot of the Babadook, what we get is an absolutely rubbish display of CGI that undoes everything about the mythos of the character. This is a shame, as the design of the creature is cool, at least in his book.

Much of The Babadook plays out like an insufferable family drama, as the mother gives in to her child’s increasingly bizarre demands until the two are isolated in their home. Although he’s grown up without a father, it’s difficult to understand why she gives in to him all the time, especially when he’s acting up so much. At one point, the mother actually takes her son out of school entirely so the authorities can’t discipline him, which is ludicrous. And whenever he gets in trouble or pisses her off, she softens immediately upon being told how much she’s loved. It’s a fucked up dynamic, and their day-to-day life, once they’re stuck in the house, is repetitive, even with the haunting.

Although it’s just over ninety minutes, The Babadook feels longer. This is thanks mostly to a bleakness that seeps out of it, threatening to cling to your clothes and suffocate you after you’ve left the theatre. It’s not a pleasant watch, nor is it the kind of film one goes to see with friends – like Oculus, or even Annabelle – and it’s not exactly something one would choose to check out alone, either. It’s tough because it’s slow-burning and quiet, which should ratchet up the tension, but it ultimately all leads to nothing. There are scares, but they become predictable and there isn’t enough of a payoff to really invest in the Babadook as a villain.

Further to this, the ending is ridiculous and will have even the most casual horror fan rolling their eyes. Not only does it take its inspiration from elsewhere, but it makes no sense, almost to the point of being comical. However, the biggest issue is how utterly unlikeable the two protagonists are. Both Davis and young Wiseman are fine actors, fully committed to their roles, but she is a dreadful mother who spoils her child, refuses to discipline him and gives in to him no matter what, and he is the most smack-worthy kid ever committed to celluloid. If you’ve seen the trailer, you will have an idea of how annoying he is, but try not to wish he dies painfully – it’s impossible.

Although ultimately a disappointment, The Babadook will slay at the multiplexes by word of mouth alone – whether it will make as much money as easier sells such as Insidious remains to be seen – and it deserves some success, for at least trying to step outside the box a little. But, given how creepy the trailer is, how interesting the premise is, and how much buzz has surrounded it, it’s annoying just how little of it actually works.

Probably best left as a short, The Babadook is bleak, dull and derivative with a villain who loses his oomph the second he’s spotted and a mother-son dynamic that makes the Bates look normal. Ultimately forgettable, it won’t be haunting nightmares any time soon. Anyone for Ouija?

Rating: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆

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