Genre: Drama / Horror
IMDB Rating: 6.9 / 10
Every now and then there comes along a movie so promising, so hyped and so full of interesting concepts that you just can’t wait to watch it. The Babadook’s trailer presented a woman’s bleak and desperate fight against an otherworldly creature out to get her and her young son for reasons unknown. Reviews for the movie as it became available were almost universally praising of this Australian-Canadian endeavour, raising hopes that the horror genre was alive and well in the 2010s.
And so I watched The Babadook in eager anticipation.
And went… “meh.”
And after I went “meh”, I spent months trying to convince Tropical Mary to watch the damn movie because I wanted a second opinion (everyone else was saying it’s amazing, I didn’t want to feel like I was the only lunatic in the asylum). Thankfully it turns out that I wasn’t alone in my feelings for this film (or, at the very least, the asylum now has two residents). This review is a mashing together of our feelings (and general sense of ‘meh’) as brought on by The Babadook.
Amelia is the dishevelled and stressed out single mother to young Samuel. Amelia’s husband died driving her to the hospital to have her son (and this is important, because the movie’s gonna be swinging this at you every opportunity it gets) and she’s just never quite gotten back on her feet. That Samuel is an annoying little shit doesn’t help, but we’ll get back to that.
Choosing to read her son a bedtime story (where I personally would have held his under water until he stopped struggling), Amelia and Sam discover a strange book called Mister Babadook on his shelf. The story tells of a strange supernatural spirit called Mister Babadook (duh…) who, once a person is aware of his existence, will torment the person. Amelia, being reasonably level-headed at this point, decides the book is inappropriate and destroys it. Sam, having the general disposition of a howler monkey on a corn syrup drip, believes Mister Babadook to be real and coming after him and his mom.
Following a complete decline in Sam’s behaviour, primarily driven by his belief that the Babadook is real, Amelia is forced to take him out of school and place him on some pretty heavy medication to try and keep him nice and sedate. But while Sam’s becoming more and more manageable Amelia’s beginning to show the signs of a complete psychological breakdown as a result of her unmanaged grief and unmanageable son. This causes her behaviour to become increasingly erratic and her behaviour towards her son more abusive. In amongst this she too has started to see the Babadook and the unusual and seemingly inexplicable events taking place in her home…
I will give credit to the Babadook’s actual appearance, which in my opinion was genuinely creepy, looking and moving exactly like something from a pop-up book come malevolently to life. This is all fine and well but you don’t actually see that much of the Babadook since, despite its top-billing in the movie’s title, it isn’t actually integral to the plot.
Other than the monster itself the special effects were rather run of the mill given the film’s $2 million budget, which seems to have been largely spent buying every shade of drab paint you could imagine to paint Amelia’s house.
A combination of confusion and indifference. The ultimate question as this movie hobbles on towards an ending is ‘what the hell is the Babadook exactly’? This is exactly where the movie starts to fall apart.
The Babadook is first shown in the aforementioned book, but it doesn’t explain what it is or what motivates it to torment people. I wouldn’t expect this kind of information so early on, but the truth is that this information is never provided and the questions never answered. Some films manage to use this mystery to great effect, and not knowing what motivates the antagonist (or, similarly, having an antagonist who does things just because it can) can create a great sense of dread in the audience. That sense is lacking in The Babadook, and the audience is left wondering whether it wanted Amelia, Sam, both of them, neither of them, Amelia’s tooth… It doesn’t help that it feels like the Babadook is actually driven by some kind of agenda that the movie is either too clever or too inept to let the audience in on.
When it comes to Sam, if he were my child and the Babadook was after him, I would gladly offer him up. I would find a dozen other better children to give to the Babadook in exchange for taking Sam. Watching the movie you can see exactly what they were going for, and his excessive screaming is meant to drive the desperation Amelia feels. Unfortunately it goes a bit too far to the point of being grating, and when he mellows out later on he’s already too unlikeable and the movie’s too far along for the audience to start caring about whether he makes it or not.
Watching Amelia is just depressing. Again, you can see exactly what they were going for – this poor woman, left widowed at what is meant to be the happiest moment of her life, trying to manage an increasingly difficult child while holding down a soul-destroying job and receiving no support from her friends or family. Like Sam, however, this portrayal is taken too far and the audience is left with a woman who is too broken and too erratic and instead of hoping she’ll make it through you pray that the Babadook will put her out of her misery.
Finally, there’s the all-important question: what the hell is going on? The obvious answer is that the Babadook isn’t real, but rather a manifestation of Amelia’s increasingly unstable mental state. Certainly we’re given enough clues to back this up – the fact that she, at one point, wrote children’s books, or that the Babadook’s antics become more brazen as her psychological breakdown kicks into fifth gear. Equally, however, there are enough things going on to make the Babadook’s supernatural presence a real thing, and her breakdown is a result of its continuing torment and not a projection of the breakdown itself. Some movies manage to play this very well, and at the end it suddenly dawns on you what’s really been going on and makes all the puzzle pieces fit together. Not so with The Babadook. Instead, a horde of petulant children (or just Sam) came screaming into the room, through the puzzle box against the wall, and ran out again. There’s no closure and ultimately no answers.
Once the movie was finished and I’d had time to mull it all over, my opinion was that this was an amazing drama that could have told a very deep and insightful story about a woman struggling to come to grips with her grief that someone decided to tack an unneeded supernatural element on to. There are so many different elements at play trying to outdo one another throughout the film’s length, very few of which are actually brought to fruition and most of which are introduced briefly and then discarded just as quickly.
My whole issue with The Babadook is that at every point I could see exactly what it was it was trying to do, but absolutely none of it came out right. Coupled with the fact that the plot was in no way imaginative enough and the development was ridiculously obvious and confusing at the same time, there’s really not enough going on here to give this movie any kind of recommendation.
How this got the rave reviews it did I don’t know, but my honest feeling is that one person of a far more ‘artsy’ disposition than myself thought it was amazing and other reviewers, unwilling to admit that they didn’t understand what’s going on, simply agreed.
My Final Rating: 3 / 10
Buy The Babadook on Amazon.com