Whilst on the surface just another foray into the ‘monster in the attic’ genre, The Babadook serves a slightly more thoughtful entry into the world of scary cinema. Positioning itself as a psychological thriller rather than an out-and-out horror, it frees itself from some of the shackles of its genre. But only some.
The attempt to draw you into this mother and son’s world is realised by exceptional performances from Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman. You feel the relationship and mutual love between the two, which is essential in making you root for them as they battle against this malevolent force.
Young Wiseman is somewhat of an enigma. It’s hard to work out whether he’s inherently annoying or originally talented. In either case, he displays admirable depth for an actor so lacking in years. Davis’ Amelia certainly owes more than some of her performance to Jack Nicholson‘s legendary turn in Kubrick’s seminal masterpiece, and arguably (yes, let’s argue: definitely) the best psychological thriller of them all, The Shining. Cue the ‘breaking down the door’ scene with a modern twist. Whether this is intentional homage or accidental imitation, it’s strange to watch a movie that’s trying to be a bit different still referencing a film from over 30 years ago.
The sound design is impressive and plays a big part in creating an incredibly tense and gripping atmosphere. Its genius is not giving you the horror ‘scares’ you expect, to break that tension or silence, but maintaining its level of suspense almost to the point of discomfort. Intelligently conceived and beautifully executed by director Jennifer Kent, The Babadook delivers, for the most part, a genuinely sustained chill rather than obvious and predictable make-you-jump moments.
It’s Amelia’s journey that really centres the film though. Her gradual descent into isolated desperation, her fight with The Babadook, and what it represents, and her transformation giving the emotional connection that separates it from being just another horror movie. And Davis does it all excellently.
However, all this good work is disappointingly undone by some strangely obvious mistakes, such as revealing the ‘monster’ too soon. It’s like jazz, sometimes it’s the notes you don’t hear that accentuate the ones you do. By playing the monster note too soon it loses that carefully constructed sense of foreboding and descends into more formulaic territory. And for fans of The League of Gentleman, the Babadook itself might prove a little too familiar to actually find frightening…
Sadly, it loses its way somewhat as it approaches climax (as Amelia does in one humorously edgy scene towards the beginning of the film), getting a bit garbled as it rushes to a conclusion, but The Babadook should be applauded for the bits it did well and learn from where it went wrong.