Compare and contrast is an often lazy and ill-effective way of reviewing a movie, but it seems rather an apt way to approach The Babadook, which feels very much like an Aussie version of the recent Guillermo Del Toro produced supernatural thriller Mama. Thematically, visually and narratively, both films are strikingly similar, right down to the flaws. Both are PG-13 level ghost stories with a cool, if ultimately underwhelming monster, featuring a terrific lead turn by an actress as a reluctant and frazzled matriarch, an icy blue visual palette, genteel jump scares and an ending that peters out into sentimental hooey. In other words, if you liked one, you’ll probably like the other. If you hated one…then, well, you get the picture.
The Babadook edges out Mama, if only because it is more convincing portrait of stressed to the brink motherhood than its Hollywood cousin. Essie Davis, her eyes sunken in with distraught exhaustion, stars as Amelia, a widowed single mother struggling to raise her troublesome son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) while also working as nurse. Samuel is not an easy child to raise, let alone love, building homemade weapons (A crossbow, a back-mounted mini-catapult) that he secretly brings to school, refusing to go to sleep and never dropping his belief in monsters under the bed, no matter how much mom implores him to grow up. Amelia loves Samuel but also secretly resents him too; her husband died in a car accident rushing her to the hospital while she was in labor, and the two events are forever conflated in her mind, to the point that she won’t celebrate little Samuel’s birthday on the actual day. The fact that Samuel has unintentionally prevented his mother from getting a good night’s sleep only adds to her ambivalent emotional reaction to him.
Which, being a horror movie, primes the household to be the ready victim for a heavy-handed and blunt force supernatural metaphor. Samuel pulls a mysterious book from his collection one night for his bedtime story, titled “The Babadook” – it proves too disturbing and age-inappropriate for Amelia, who fairly immediately decides the best course of action is to burn the damn thing on the grill. Alas, it’s too late; reading the book has allowed entrance into our world the creepy antagonist of the title, a top-hatted shadow figure that bears a striking resemblance to the blasphemous Brazilian horror icon Coffin Joe. Samuel grows even more afraid to sleep, claiming the Babdook is out to get him. Soon, Amelia begins seeing strange, freaky things in the shadows, and slowly becomes convinced the monster is real as well. But as she unravels, is she really seeing a ghostly beasty tormenting her family, or is the Babadook-dook-dook just a projection of her own frailty as a broken down and reluctant mother?
Writer/director Jennifer Kent makes a great, if a bit obvious, case for the horror movie as a home for social commentary, even if her horror moves are a bit on the familiar side. The Babadook often works on a completely metaphorically level, using the monstrous threat as way of visualizing parental guilt, fear and reluctance, particularly when it comes to subsuming your own needs, wants and identity in order to raise a child. Throughout the film, Amelia is beseeched to “not let it in,” referring to the Babadook, but also to all the negative, depressing and hateful feelings that can come from grief, stress and losing your own self. (SPOILERS AHEAD; SKIP READING IF YOU DON’T WANNA KNOW MORE) When Amelia fails to prevent it from “not getting in,” she becomes possessed — a monstrous and cruel version of her former self. Amelia has given in to all the murky darkness boiling up inside her.
It’s all interesting, if a bit heavy of hand. And while it works on an intellectual level, The Babadook doesn’t always work on a visceral one. To be fair, it’s not that the film isn’t scary, because it has it’s moments; it’s just that the scares are a bit on the tame and familiar side. If this was a Hollywood production, this would be on the high end of the slick and tony “classy” PG-13 supernatural thrillers that Tinseltown sells to 14-year-old girls. Sure, the Aussie accent throws you off a bit, but any hardened genre fan is going to see through that facade pretty quickly. This is a scare flick for the casual fan, not the graduate level one, and it’s slow (a little too slow) burn doesn’t really build up the kind of heart-rending dread one would hope for in a film like this.
That said, it isn’t bad — Davis is utterly fantastic in the lead role, and Wiseman is a child actor find, and Kent, in her debut film, is already an assured and graceful director. Of course, all the same stuff could and was said about Mama, which also featured a terrific lead performance (by Jessica Chastain), solid debut direction (Andres Muschetti) — and well-staged but tame boo scares. And after a rollicking climax, both films end with saccharine claptrap. In the end I could recommend The Babadook on its own merits, but this is a case where it’s just easier to say if you’ve seen one movie before, then you already know if this one is for you.
3 out of 5 stars