Review: Genuine Creativity Returns to Horror in Jennifer Kent’s 'The Babadook'

Robert Tiemstra ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Essie Davis in The Babadook. Photo Credit: Causeway Films.
Essie Davis in The Babadook. Photo Credit: Causeway Films.

“If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you cannot escape the Babadook..”

There is a serious problem with horror movies these days, one that you don’t really notice until you’ve declined your best friend’s offer of going to see Ouija in the theater in favor of watching Alien on your computer at home. The problem is a serious lack of genuine inspiration. Whether through using cheap scares, stock imagery, or a profound lack of thematic resonance, horror has become creatively impotent. While films like The Conjuring are perfectly capable of scaring your pants off, they are merely the best executed in a series of clichés lazily parading itself in front of an audience too easily sated to beg for something new. While it is foolish to look back at previous decades and ask yourself “why can’t we make horror movies that creative anymore?”, it is just as depressing to look forward and think “is this all we have to look forward to?”
Thankfully, Australian up-and-comer director Jennifer Kent has the perfect answer to burnt out horror fans in the form of The Babadook, a claustrophobic thriller that plays out like a nightmare young Tim Burton would have on the set of The Shining. Whether it is effective or not is completely out of the question by the time Amelia (Essie Davis) opens up the book “Mister Babadook” for her son. Jennifer Kent has such an intuitive sense about horror and the strength of her own production design that she manages to shoot the most effective scares of the movie within the confines of a children’s book. Kent shows impressive filmmaking chops before she even lets her pet creature off the leash, establishing a impressively disconcerting tone right from the first shot – a Lynchian nightmare that establishes a firm emotional foundation for the entire film to build on.
It is an unfortunate tendency of horror movie fans to grade a movie based on the number of scares – ticking off jump scares and sudden loud noises like each film is entering a competition about how many times it can cause people to leap from their seats with terror. A film like The Babadook displays the confidence to creep up methodically upon the audience, creating a feeling of unease that holds you tight and rarely falters. The Babadook is rooted in the strong imagination of Kent, her production designers, and her editor, who conspire to make the titular creature a fascinating figure right out of nightmares. It would be a crime to spoil all the twisted wonders Kent and her team achieve with everything from news reports to classic cinema playing Amelia’s midnight Television screen. The house itself, meticulously constructed in near monochrome, feels like a conspirator in the mind games of The Babadook. Mister Babadook himself, never glimpsed fully in the light, is one of the great horror movie creations – an oddly quirky storybook design that never manages to undermine the abject terror it subjects poor Amelia to.

Noah Wiseman in The Babadook. Photo Credit: Causeway Films.
Noah Wiseman in The Babadook. Photo Credit: Causeway Films.
While the creativity and Brothers Grimm-inspired imagery this film presents is impressive in its own right, none of it would work quite as well as it does without a firm narrative foothold in the characters of Amelia and her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). In the wake of a family tragedy, Amelia’s life feels stiflingly oppressive before Mister Babadook even comes knocking – before this film dives into the genuine horror, it defines the life of its main character as one of inescapable commitments, all of which stem from the trauma her and Samuel have had to live through.
Mister Babadook’s introduction into the story is never explained, nor does it need to be. Like the best movie monsters, Mister Babadook is cut from a very real thematic cloth. In broad terms, it is a manifestation of the darkness Amelia faces within herself being worn thin by her new life as a single mother. Her grief and pent up rage are as inseparable from her life as her own son, and as resilient as the creature they spawn. A lesser film would spell out the allegory of The Babadook through a twist ending in which everything in the film is revealed to be the delusions of a traumatic mind, but Jennifer Kent wisely keeps the fiction here self-contained. It’s a show of trust horror movies rarely afford their audience, and the film benefits immensely from the omission.
Is the film perfect? Not quite. At just hour and a half, the plot of The Babadook runs dangerously thin throughout. Inevitably, once such a vivid world of paranoia and horror is established, the payoff will prove far more disappointing than the build-up. Narrative consistency is maintained through to the end, but as the film climaxes much sooner than expected, one wonders how much more tension they could have wrung out of the last twenty minutes. The inspired world they create is one that begs for more thorough resolution than ultimately supplied, but perhaps it is wise of Kent to settle for less.
Overall Grade: A-

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