This joint Canadian-Australian venture represents the growing trend of independent horror. Low budget using unknown actors and actresses that go for the essence of what horror is supposed to be about – scares and story rather than effects and blood and guts. It goes for psychology to keep you on the edge of your seat but does it work in the way that others in the genre work, like Insidious and Sinister? Actually no, and if you’re looking for that sort of film you might be disappointed. If it’s subtext you want then go away, don’t read my review – watch the film instead.
It opens with an overly-familiar story of a single mother (widowed) of a problem child who seems to be a bit of an inventor in the making and has an imaginary “friend” that he refers to as the monster. The mother has problems of her own. Not only is she a widow, but she is skittish and anxious and perhaps a little overprotective of her little boy to the point of it being unhealthy. She doesn’t like her son hugging her tightly. Neither are coping well and then the son’s apparent fantasies about a monster take a turn for the worst after the boy discovers a booked called The Babadook. They don’t know where it came from, but its contents quickly turn nasty and so does the family’s existence. Is The Babadook real or are mother & son finally cracking under the pressure of their grief?
What I Liked
Slow paced: Films like this work because they give us time – time to get to know people, time to get familiar with their situation, time to immerse ourselves in the unique problems of the family. The Babadook is always there yet for most of the film, we are not sure whether he is real or a manifestation of the the mental illness of the mother and the son. Even at the end you are still not certain, though I certainly have my opinion on that, I will not reveal it here.
Empathy: The mother at first appears stiff and unconvincing as yet another troubled single parent with a problem child. Yet the more we get to know her, the more we empathise and see that she is not merely sad, but in the middle of a full-blown depression brought on by denial and refusal to discuss her grief. Her stoicism is a façade that may crack at any moment – just as it is in real life. She simply does not have the energy for life’s little nuggets of bullshit.
The book: As writers, we know how books can take on a life of their own – but we’re talking about the story within, not the physical body of the book. Here, the book is every bit a terrifying character in its own right. In Ring, the video cassette itself is not terrifying, it is merely the medium. You will never look at a children’s fantasy pop up book in the same way again and the book only makes about 3 or 4 appearances.
What is this film really about?: Few horror films force you to think about subtext. The subtext here appears to be mental illness and grief – the mother’s depression and the son’s behavioural problems – both born out of the tragedy that struck their family some seven years before. Who says that horror cannot be intelligent, make you think about what you are seeing? Why does it always need to be the case that a haunted book unleashes hell quite literally?
Moments of tenderness: Despite their individual and interpersonal problems, mother and son seem to remain strong. We see moments of contrast that this family is not all that dysfunctional. There is one brief scene in a diner where the boy is sat happily drinking a milkshake while on the table behind, a group of children his age are misbehaving. This adds a level of normality and depth in a genre where most characters are pretty one dimensional.
What I Didn’t Like
The boy: I have mixed feelings about the son. He is not a particularly great actor in a genre that seems to have discovered some great gems of fine young actors. A good child actor can carry a film like this very well that we almost take them for granted. He needed gravitas for his part in the finale and he didn’t quite deliver. When we get a child actor that doesn’t quite match up, the film can suffer quite badly.
The Babadook: Whether real or a hallucination, when we see him he is not all that scary. His appearance is a strange and cheap CGI; the flashes we get, though immediately jumpy, make him look like Edward Scissorhands and there is nothing scary about him. The voice that we occasionally hear sounds like Donald Duck with laryngitis. Looks like Edward Scissorhands and sounds like Donald Duck does not compute to “terrifying” for me. Luckily, the atmosphere more than makes up for it.
The father: The tragedy of his death is an albatross hanging around the neck of the family. Yet I am not quite sure why it was felt that the final scene was the place to reveal the nature and manner of his death. We had had hints up to that point, but nothing of value was added in waiting this long. From another perspective, the context of the film suffered because of it.
It’s always good when you go into a film having no expectations. That way, you can’t be disappointed. What starts out as a run of the mill contemporary haunting-horror film in the tradition of Insidious and Sinister and being just as slow moving, just as engaging, becomes something very different. That will disappoint many avid horror fans but not all. It’s a great film. Largely well acted with a superb sub-text that you don’t always get with horror.