As you may or may not know I often bang on about the importance of good, well developed characters in horror films. The reason for this is, as I’ve also said before, because when the shit goes down, which it invariably will and should, you need to be able to care for these people or else your just watching a load of horrible stuff happening to horrible people, or Friday the 13th as it is also known. The Babadook, a rare horror film from Australia takes the emphasis on character and runs with it, unfortunately it does so at the price of the actual horror.
Essentially a two hander, The Babadook concerns a mother, unable to deal with the grief of having lost her husband on the day she gave birth, trying her best to raise her odd and outspoken son. The son, from the beginning is convinced they are being stalked by a monster but it is only when the mother Amelia (Essie Davis) reads from a pop up book about a nightmarish creature called the Babadook that things start to get creepy.
The set up is very good. The insular world of a single mother is brought vividly to life as a grown up finds that her only conversations revolve around childish conversations. The pair of them live in a house painted from top to bottom in grey, and this is like a physical manifestation of their misery before the Babadook even shows up to be the same. Noah Wiseman who plays Samuel her six year old son is very good, carrying a lot of the fear and paranoia on his small shoulders. There is no denying that he is also rather annoying, as Amelia’s sister points out, even she can’t stand her own child. But that is kind of the point, he is annoying because not only does he have character traits of his dead father but also he is constantly pointing out the danger they are in and Amelia cannot bare to listen to it, let alone believe it. He is also annoying because he screams a lot and and is completely exhausting, so you can see why most people want to have him locked up, or at the very least give him a good old slap.
There is some good stuff here. The book about “Mister Babadook” himself is a evil and grim piece of work with its childlike drawings suggesting either Samuel or maybe even Amelia wrote it. Also there’s a good scene in a police station where, again everything being grey, you are not sure whether this place is real, part of Amelia’s paranoia or a place that the Babadook himself controls.
In the first two thirds of the film the Babadook takes a back seat to the disintegrating relationship between mother and son, even if it is partly the cause of it. I feel this does not work in the films favour. There are long stretches of the film where the only horror is how awful it must be to be a single mother. When we do have supernatural occurrences they are things we have seen and heard before: a figure in the corner of room, door knockings with jo one there, objects returning after being thrown away. The one which bugged me the most was the sleeping time lapse, an effect already done to death in all the Paranormal Activities.
Things do finally pick up in the final act but even then I think there are some serious flaws. (SPOILERS AHEAD). Most of the last act consists of Amelia being possessed by the Babadook and trying to hunt down Samuel and kill him. The troubles here are two fold. 1) despite Essie Davis’s very best efforts, this is not scary at all. We’ve had all this kind of stuff before, most notably in The Shining which this feels like a cheap grey rip off of. 2) Who are we now rooting for? Obviously not Amelia who’s possessed by a guy in a hat with terrible make up appliance skills but also not so much the child who’s been getting on our nerves for the last hour or so.
The up shot of all this is that despite the long, long build up we are left with a pay off that is some what unengaging, a real shame when the film has been so much about trying to create strong and interesting characters. However we are lumbered with a climax where one of the main characters is effectively absent and the other one we don’t like anyway.
Also I think it says a lot when I say i did something I never do at the cinema, I looked at my watch.
I also have to admit that I suspect that hype surrounding The Babadook might have affected my judgement, or maybe its just mainstream critics don’t watch as many horror films as I do. When they are all saying this is the scariest film in years, I will still approach it with reservations but also an open mind, but this isn’t, unfortunately, anything of the sort. Its well made and has a strong central performance from Davis, but its also pretty unsubtle with its heavy handed musings on grief. If you want to see better recent horror films of this ilk then watch The Conjuring or The Pact. They both have well written characters and interesting (and ye okay, familiar) stories but they have something The Babadook lacks: genuine scares.