Don’t read the book. Seriously. Have horror films taught us nothing? Don’t read the book, don’t open the door, don’t ever go into the basement, and if you have a creepy kid, maybe think about offering him or her to a loving, unsuspecting family. (But don’t adopt. Orphans are bad news, too.)
It seems nearly impossible to avoid the tropes of the genre, though, so in The Babadook—an anagram of, guess what, bad book—single mom Amelia (Essie Davis) and her weird son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), try to have a nice moment before bed by thumbing through the children’s hardcover Sam found on the shelf. It’s a pop-up book, but its images and message aren’t so kid-friendly.
First-time writer-director Jennifer Kent has crafted a fairly commendable thriller, offering characters with more depth than Halloween decorations and avoiding cheap jumps or I-totally-saw-that-coming twists. But when it comes to the little things, there’s a slim line between homage and theft. It seems as if every time you think, “I really like X about The Babadook,” you soon realize that X has been done before.
Kent references The Shining, The Omen, and The Exorcist most clearly in her story about Amelia’s grief over her husband getting killed the night he drove her to the hospital to deliver Sam. She can’t move past it, thus it haunts her; Sam senses her distance from and perhaps even resentment of him, thus he misbehaves to the point of violence and claims to see monsters. Neither can really be considered functional.
The Babadook doesn’t telegraph the direction in which it’s headed, and even when plot details feel familiar, the performances make it a worthwhile sit. Wiseman’s turn as a young boy struggling with emotions he can’t yet understand is precociously nuanced, going beyond the usual horror requirement that a child be pale and say unwittingly chilly things.
Davis, on whose shoulders the film rests, gives an award-worthy portrayal of a woman on the verge. The often lightning-fast mood changes Kent asks of her star would seem absurd from a less capable actor; Amelia is loving, desperate, angry, mournful, menacing, fearful, and fierce at various points in the script, which, if you trim the extremes, makes her human. You imagine that once filming wrapped, Davis was in need of a long vacation.
The final scenes of The Babadook are open-ended, sure to lead you either to thoughtful discussion or immediate dismissal. It’s ultimately a slow-burn piece of horror that feels restrained even when it escalates. If you’re looking for the big scares its trailers imply, you’ll leave disappointed. If you’re aware that it’s been nearly unanimously praised, you’ll get the same result. Kent’s debut is inarguably a noteworthy one, but despite some novel patchwork, it also suggests that there’s nothing new under the bed.
The film is now playing at West End Cinema.