The most important thing about the Babadook is setting the proper expectations. If you’re expecting the sort of terror that is being advertised, you’re going to be disappointed. There is a lot of difference between a festival audience, and a horror film audience. Just because it upset people at Sundance doesn’t mean it will work as a horror film.
As a horror film the Babadook underperforms. It ratchets up the tension slowly like a modern classic, but the last twenty or so minutes are very curious choices for a horror film. The Babadook is, however, a fantastic piece of family psychodrama and works as allegory and that’s the film I was impressed with.
Amelia lost her husband in a car accident while pregnant with Samuel. Now a single mother in a soul-crushing job attending to the elderly, she is overwhelmed with the care of the sensitive, energetic child that gets into one mess after another. She has a long-suffering friend, Claire and a seemingly interested co-worker Robbie, but as the film goes on, she is alienated from them too.
While doing storytime, they find a book on the shelf that they have never seen before. The book is featured heavily in the advertisements and it’s the finest touch in the film, as it is utterly unnerving.
Samuel becomes obsessed with the idea of the ‘Babadook,’ a bearded figure in a long black coat and top hat. And after a while, so does Amelia. And now I have to give you the secret of the Babadook.
The Babadook represents the specter of depression, a depression that so consumes Amelia that she begins to contemplate matricide.
The Babadook is a monstrous version of her son, whom she subconsciously hates, and blames for her lot.
And as the film goes on, Samuel is forced to rely on his wits as his mother starves him, verbally abuses him and then begins to stalk him.
I will save some secrets.
The Babadook makes some unpopular choices, mostly out of bravery and originality, but the sacrifices it takes to be a good film, also undermine it as a horror film. I am reminded of the genius of Dawn of the Dead, another movie with strong subtext and allegory that seamlessly weaves its themes into a working horror movie. Writer/Director Jennifer Kent isn’t quite able to do this, but this is still a really good film and certainly nothing to be ashamed of.