One of the most talked-about festival darlings of 2014 has been Jennifer Kent’s chilling debut, The Babadook, earning so much buzz here at Fantastic Fest that additional screenings had to be booked. The film explores a haunting story about loss, coping methods and lingering consequences of tragedy through a vile monster known as Mister Babadook, one that attempts to garner atmospheric scares in darkly lit rooms. However, there’s a bit of a payoff problem come Kent’s final summation. Waiting, ready to accept my horrific money shot with noted anticipation, the film ends leaving so much potential buried in a basement of regret, not following through on promises of pint-sized heroism and a haunting villain primed for a deadly game of cat-and-mouse. Word to the wise, next time a mysterious pop-up book appears on your bookshelf, just put it back – that’ll avoid another generic horror watch for us all.
Essie Davis plays Amelia, a distraught mother whose husband was killed when driving her to the delivery room, with her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) being a constant reminder of that tragic day. Plagued by thoughts of monsters and an overactive imagination, Samuel is constantly causing trouble for his mother, going as far as to create an arsenal of weapons – only intending to protect Amelia. When Samuel has a nasty nightmare one evening, Amelia lets him pick a bedtime story and a strange book called Mister Babadook is plopped in her lap. When the book turns out to be a terrifying tale, Samuel’s obsession with a shadowy figure presents itself. But after Amelia dismisses his fears as imaginary, the single mother starts noticing obscurities of her own. Was the book she read truly fiction, or did she unknowingly invite a monster into her life?
Mister Babadook should be a prolific horror figure, and based on the fanfare around Kent’s movie I believe he eventually will be, but few scenes truly pay homage to such a nefarious being. Sporting a top hat and razor-sharp, dagger-like hands, his presence sends a chill up your spine, but that’s always where it ends. So many times we’re waiting for a frantic chase or creeping introduction, but instead we’re gifted a single glimpse of the title villain followed by either his hasty retreat to the dark or a first-person camera angle that instead gives us Babadook-vision. Oh, and dinosaur nosies? One single scene grants him proper movement, and his shape is only used a handful more times, which seriously handcuffs a strong core competency of The Babadook.
While Kent struggles to establish true scares, it’s her dissection of grief that shoulders The Babadook. It’s a weighty question to pose – trading something you love for something you’re almost forced into loving – as Amelia struggles to keep guilty thoughts and selfish feelings hidden away. As Mister Babadook tightens his grip on Amelia, she expresses sentiments towards her son that parents repress or dismiss, screaming at Samuel in regards to wishing he were normal.
There’s an emotional thread tying Amelia and Samuel together beyond blood, causing a barrier that Kent explores given Amelia’s inner torment, as there’s no conventional response to such harrowing events. There’s a blurred line that even suggests Mister Babadook has been conjured by Amelia, granting her the power to express all the naughty feelings swimming throughout her. Although, it’s rather obvious that her gentlemanly stalker is all-too-real.
As for Samuel, he’s touted as a mini-Ghostbuster of sorts who builds weapons in preparation of a boogeyman attack, yet his moment of heroism is short-lived. Instead, Samuel is a whiny child with a big mouth, as far too many scenes take place with the child screaming “MOM!” from the backseat of Amelia’s car. Young Noah Wiseman is called upon for shocking laughs when he blurts out non-child-like statements, and he can play a convincingly scared youngster, but Kent deems it unnecessary to utilize a full transformation into a ghostly warrior, because that would have meant a little less magician flamboyance. What a shame.
It’s Kent’s job to give us something worth fearing, and while Amelia is that vessel for a split second, Mr. Babadook never becomes such a malevolent monster. His raspy whispers are menacing and his book etches a few creepy pages, but the Babadook-vision is nothing more than a lifeless copout that removes any notion of terror and intrigue. Watching Mr. Baba fly around with ferocity would have given a more sinister bite to The Babadook, but in his current form, the monster’s signature move never builds upon emerging from darkness and twitching his pointy fingers like a dapper scarecrow. Again, we only get a mere glimpse of his scurrying nature, and the rest are mere camera tricks – hammered home by the lamest of endings.
The Babadook is an ably shot, horrendously generic late-night fairy tale that’s more child’s play than anything. Family dramatics offer more intrigue here than a monster without a commanding presence, as we question if Amelia is the real monster in said scenario, because whenever excitement ramps up in a suggestive manner, we’re brought right back down to Earth by a cutaway or POV flip. More frustrating than anything, The Babadook may be a brilliant watch for those who are looking for softer horror material or a sweet genre introduction, but as for more hardcore fans, there’s nothing in Kent’s runabout that we haven’t seen before.
The Babadook is a horror fable that's light on terror and heavy on whiny children, making for an uneven watch that squanders potential around far too many corners.