The-Babadook-PosterI’m super tired this morning and I haven’t been sleeping very well. Could this be a result of having watched The Babadook this weekend? Probably not. I slept like a baby after seeing the likes of A Serbian Film and whatever other movie you’re thinking of that is supposed to keep you awake at night.

Here’s a cool thing to do for Valentine’s Day: watch a genre film. Doesn’t necessarily need to be horror but that’s where I would probably lean. I remember one year we watched Seven Psychopaths and that was hella romantic. Have I ever mentioned that I love my girlfriend? The kind of girl that gives me a cap gun on Valentine’s Day and watches genre films with me is the kind of girl I’m going to marry.

Anyhow, we decided to save The Babadook for a special occasion and even though we got drunk and didn’t actually watch it on Valentine’s Day, we did get around to watching it the next night. The Babadook came in with some pretty glowing recommendations. Jon picked it as one of his top movies of 2014 on our 9ES Best of 2014 episode and The Indoor Kids (who I often agree with) couldn’t stop talking about it a few months ago. That being said, it’s not without its detractors. Like Leonnie C last week at Rotten Tomatoes:

thought this movie was terrible!! that kid was the most annoying irritating little thing to ever appear on my screen

The movie has a 97% “Fresh” rating from critics and a 76% rating from the audience reviewers. That alone was enough to give me pause. Typically, a horror film falls flat with critics but can be well received by the audience. Weird. So let’s have it.

The Babadook tells a pretty simple story (minor spoilers ahead, skip to the last paragraph if you want to stay spoiler free).  Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widow who struggles to raise and discipline her 6 year-old, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). The movie establishes early that Samuel deals with some pretty vivid fears of your standard “monsters under the bed”. To the point where he makes weapons. Like a homemade crossbow and some kind of ball launcher that can smash a window. This alone has you questioning exactly what kind of weird ass upbringing he endured. Turns out that Amelia’s husband died in a car crash driving her to the hospital to give birth to Sam. As Sarah (the aforementioned girlfriend) pointed out: “That’s fucked up.” One day Sam pulls a pop up book called ‘Mister Babadook” off the shelf and asks Amelia to read it at storytime. It’s a creepy little black and white story with fun rhymes but oh shit this book is fucked. (There was a way to get an actual replica of the Mister Babadook book, but the official website has informed that it is over, I’ve never been so jealous of 6200 strangers in my life).

Enter The Babadook, who will torture and torment Amelia and Sam for the rest of the movie.

How to make sure your kid has problems in one easy step: get this book.

How to make sure your kid has problems in one easy step: get this book.

Once the titular monster appears, The Babadook really shines in its approach and does a few things incredibly smart and effectively. By depicting Samuel as a troubled boy (who is later even drugged to handle his acting out) and Amelia as a sleep deprived grief stricken widow, the film gets to play very fast and loose with whether or not there actually is a supernatural predator or if the whole thing is just a creepy manifestation of unresolved grief and guilt over the circumstances of the father’s death. It’s brilliant. The two characters are unhinged through most of the movie so it’s never explicitly clear one way or the other.

I knew the budget for this film was relatively small (Wikipedia has it in at $2 million, but that might even include distribution so actual production budget might be even smaller) so I was interested in seeing how they were going to actually portray the giant shadowy monster portrayed in the book in live action (or if they were going to at all). When they do, director Jennifer Kent makes another very smart choice that works within her theme and her budget. The Babadook’s special effects keep him very close to the sketchy depiction that he has in the pop up book. He (it?) moves around with jerky stop-motion animation and looks undeniably fake. However, he looks the way he does in the book. As a viewer, this just adds to the idea that he may very well be fake and just a fabrication of stress and sleep deprivation.

A good 80% of screen time is dominated solely by the two characters and neither one disappoints. Essie Davis brings some of the best acting I’ve ever seen in a horror movie to the table and runs the full gamut of emotions. Sweet caring mother, grieving widow at her wits end, incredibly frightening psycho and everything in between. Noah Wiseman has a few scenes where he suffers from being a kid and maybe over or underacting, but these are few and far between and in any major scene he nails whatever emotion he’s going for. His facial expressions and reactions are incredible for an actor who was only 7.

Now, it doesn’t take an incredibly deep reading of the film to realize that the Babadook himself is a manifestation of Amelia’s grief and Sam’s guilt over the tragedy surrounding Sam’s birth. Supernatural or no, The Babadook preys on their fears and seems to grow stronger the more the character’s deny him. (To the point that Sam seems to speak openly to him but when Amelia denies that he exists, she is the one who suffers being possessed by him). This mirrors exactly their relationship with Amelia’s husband’s death. Amelia doesn’t even like it when people mention her husband’s name and Sam will talk openly about the tragedy to strangers in the supermarket.

The only thing that put me off a little bit was the ending (MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD). After the climax of the film and the showdown against the Babadook, the film cuts ahead a few months to Amelia and Sam living a seemingly normal life. It is then revealed that they didn’t get rid of the Babadook at all, but rather have him subdued in the basement. Sam even speaks the line “Will I get to meet him?” and Amelia answers “Maybe when you’re older.” I felt like the film was just screaming at me “THIS IS A METAPHOR FOR GRIEF, THAT IS WHAT WAS HAPPENING.” It was a little over the top and honestly I didn’t like being it being driven home quite so hard. A minor fault with an otherwise fantastic low-budget horror.

SPOILER FREE WRAP UP:

In conclusion, other than a handful of minor missteps, The Babadook delivers in just about every way you could hope for. Jon and I have often proclaimed our love for “small horror” where the horror is limited to a single location and a handful of characters. The intimacy and isolation can allow for some really scary developments. The Babadook has this in spades. Thanks to a clever story and setup, the “is it or isn’t it really happening” twists and outstanding performances from the leads I would say The Babadook is the first “must see” horror movie in a long time.

Babadook is Streaming on Amazon Instant Video  and a Deluxe Blu-Ray is available April 14.

Pop Up Babadook Image from CinEffect Podcast Episode 71.

Keith does all sorts of things here on 9to5.cc, he works with the other founders on 9to5 (illustrated), co-hosts our two podcasts: The 9to5 Entertainment System and Go Plug Yourself and blogs here as The Perspicacious Geek.

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