The Babadook is coming to get everyone at some point; it isn’t just a pop-up book about a monster, and it’s not just the coat and spindly fingers that hangs in your closet. It’s not just a demon that creeps into your room at night; it’s always there, and it’s always threatening to push you down a flight of stairs. This Australian horror from writer/director Jennifer Kent is already a hit for 2014, and you’ve probably heard a lot about it already – a lot of it glowing, and probably some who threaten to ruin it for you before you even get to see it. But more than that, it is a very real disturbance for many people, a haunting portrayal of grief and depression that manifests itself as a stalking presence.
Kent’s film follows Amelia (Essie Davis), mother of Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who struggles to raise her difficult son after the loss of her husband in a car accident the day he was born. Sam is an adventurous kid, but that means he often gets into trouble at school; he’s obsessed with weaponry that he creates, and monsters are a big part of his imagination. It means that Amelia, already stressed from her job and still grieving, has difficulty coping with Sam’s outbursts, so much so that even her babysitter Aunt Claire (Hayley McElhinney) gives up on him.
Kent paints a vivid picture of a disheveled home life, and it’s punctuated by Essie Davis’ particularly harried performance. Consistently frazzled, Davis looks the picture of a wreck, and despite a couple of scenes where a friend named Robbie (Daniel Henshall) attempts to do some good turns for her – clearly a man after her heart whether she knows it or not – Amelia is often completely overwhelmed by her life, and Kent shows us why. Sam is a handful, not a bad kid but one that has had it tough over the years and just doesn’t fit in well with others. He’s got a creative mind, but it often leaves him outcast.
Wiseman does such a great job that it’s hard to think of him as anything but the troubled child he portrays. Kicking and screaming, yelling mommy, even a quick seizure – the kid has chops, and they’re certainly on display in The Babadook. He’s a huge part of Kent’s building atmosphere in the first half of the film, often creating the tension by speaking to the air beside him or peering off into the darkness.
Kent’s story is built on that suspense, though, and it’s not just the actors who cause fear. The Babadook’s pop-up book is the highlight, an inventive way to showcase the babadook without having to show him on-screen. Indeed, the moments where the babadook is seen more explicitly, like on the ceiling, are the times where Kent’s story falters – he’s better off in the shadows, or glimpsed in the background, rather than in the audience’s face.
Still, the scares are not cheap – they don’t rely on pop-ups, for the most part, but the creeping pull of dread, the idea that something is not right when there’s a bump or a rattle. It’s the kind of visceral thrill that leaves you hoping maybe it was just the dog, not the babadook sneaking into the room to watch over you. More than that, though, Kent has an unyielding focus on metaphor, and there’s never a sense that the deeper symbolism behind the babadook is accidental. The idea of the babadook as grief isn’t something that the viewer cooks up in their own mind – it’s there from the start, at the moment when Amelia descends from her dream state.
If there’s one thing that The Babadook lacks, it’s a successful ending. Kent does the work to ensure that the metaphor’s meaning comes across after Amelia vanquishes it – the babadook, we’re told, never goes away, but if the ending is any indication, it can at least be stifled – but the way that the film fades out feels stilted, ending on Sam’s birthday party, one he’s never had for himself before. The thematic importance is clear: Sam, and more importantly, his mother, have overcome their hangups, or at least pushed them down as best they could, where they’re “not so bad” that day. But The Babadook‘s conclusion feels like it’s either cut off before the important pivotal scene, or extended too long; either way, it leaves a jarring finale.
But that doesn’t detract from The Babadook at all; in fact, it leaves the viewer thinking about it even more. Horror is often fingered as a genre that rarely has anything more to say than the gratuitous violence it depicts onscreen, but The Babadook proves that attempts to pigeonhole scary tales into a category like unimportant shlock will miss huge thematic moments. Kent’s film about a boogeyman book is buoyant, a tale that sticks around like its title monster.