For this reviewer, having grown tired of these horror movies in which a family exists as bland playthings for terror, The Babadook is a refreshing change of pace. Here is a single family that isn’t prim and proper before the ghastlies start spooking them: The mother is an overworked mess of sleepless nights and tight work days. The son is an overreactive boy with an accelerated imagination and an ear-piercing whine when he doesn’t get his way. These are real characters with real issues that are all too understandable for any parent, and their whole situation—with an overworked mother losing both her spirit and the relationship toward her son—is gripping right from the start. By the time the scary boogeyman shows up to spook them, he doesn’t have much work to do to strike fear into either mother or child. The family is already hanging by a thread, and the antagonist merely has to pluck it slightly for the snap.
First-time feature-film writer/director Jennifer Kent creates a both relatable and cerebral horror experience. The film centers almost entirely on the perspective of Amelia (Essie Davis), a single parent stretched to her limits. Her days are entirely occupied by tending to her son, Sam (Noah Wiseman), working long shifts at the old-folks home, cooking dinner, doing dishes, and hopelessly trying to coax Sam to bed. Night transitions into morning so suddenly she wonders if she’s had any rest at all, but she gets up anyway to do it all over again. Her packed schedule, coupled with Sam’s constant outbursts, has turned her into a boiling mess—she attends a mutual friend’s birthday party only to explode on a married housewife for complaining about how she can’t go to the gym that often. Even as a married parent, I can relate to that desire to cuss out those with first-world problems who don’t appreciate the freedom they have.
The plot takes a turn when Amelia lets Sam pick a book off the shelf for a bedtime story and he chooses a mysterious pop-up novel titled Mister Babadook. The black-and-white illustrations inside warn of the eerie Mister Babadook, a tall, dark figure that resembles Nosferatu in a top hat. He’s a wicked creature who invites himself into a host and takes advantage of their evil instincts, and Amelia is already primed and ready as a top candidate. The book says the creepy spirit knocks before entering, but this mother has already left the door wide open with her weariness.
Mister Babadook slowly takes hold of Amelia, trying to entice her to kill her entire family. It seems so easy for the shadowy menace that he mocks poor Amelia with subtle visions and vicious updates to his pop-up book, the latter of which is more frightening than it sounds. Mister Babadook is quite handy with the paper in the way he crafts interactive displays of slit throats. The stark visuals reminded me of those scary books I used to read as a kid that would generate nightmares but also an exciting allure. Such nostalgic thoughts really brought out some terrifying and understandable concerns for Sam.
The title character spends the majority of the film either off screen or obscured in the shadows. He’s kept much more sinister as the unseen antagonist of a mother on the edge. The methods that Babadook uses for terrorizing the family are somewhat expected, but they are expertly assembled in a way that makes them truly frightening. I knew there’d be a moment where paranormal forces would propel somebody across the floor or through the air, for example, but it’s rather genius the way Mister Babadook launches Sam back as if being shoved by an invisible barrier around his possessed mother.
What makes the scares so effective isn’t just that they’re genuinely scary, but that we deeply care about these characters and their grief. Amelia is the most dedicated of mothers, and Sam is both plucky and sweet. He appears as a whiny brat at first, but he’s actually the most intelligent victim of the Babadook. He’s aware of what’s coming and jumps ahead of his tired mother to defend her with his own homemade weapons. When mama starts going on a killing spree, Sam just doesn’t give up on his mother and desperately tries to hold her back from the darkness that engulfs her. Horror-movie logic dictates that if someone is possessed, you get the heck out of the house, but this film isn’t operating on the standard practices of genre convention. Despite using some familiar elements, it sidesteps many of the expected clichés, showing actions taken from the heart rather than in the moment.
But what’s most genius about The Babadook is that it’s more than just a grouping of scary money shots. At its core, it’s a film about coming to terms with loss and overcoming trauma. Just being able to combine an emotional resonance and effective chills easily makes this one of the best horror films of the decade. That may not sound like the most ringing endorsement given its current competition, but it truly is going to turn heads much harder than a possessed doll or spooky Ouija board.