The Babadook (2014) – Review

It’s not just in this day and age that genuinely scary horror movies are a rare thing to find; throughout history they’ve been needles in haystacks.  Some people will try to convince you that all modern horror is un-scary, Hollywoodized tosh, and that true horror fans only enjoy the classics… or the old and unheard of.  But the truth is that, like with anything else, there is, and always has been, good and bad.  Of course plenty of rubbish horror flicks have found their way to our screens over the last few years, but there have been just as many crackers; just like Texas Chainsaw 3D is rubbish and Paranormal Activity is great, *unpopular opinion alert* Terence Fisher’s Horror Of Dracula is boring while Hitchcock’s Psycho is brilliant.  There’s always a give and take.

So that, in some way, brings us to The Babadook, a low-budget chiller from Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent which has been preceded by a wealth of positive reviews, many warning of sleep deprivation as a genuine consideration before watching it.  Such heightening of expectations will always yield potentially negative results, and while I don’t feel that’s the real problem with the film, it’s certainly gone some way to dampening its impact.  The Babadook finds us in the stressed world of Amelia (Davis), a single mother to an erratic and troublesome young boy who, after reading an unsettling bedtime book titled ‘Mister Babadook’, begins to fear the monster is real and lurking in the shadows.

There’s an immediate sense of isolation and oppression to proceedings as one of the eeriest settings you’ll ever see – the house in which the two of them live alone – takes up most of the screen time.  From a production design point of view it’s brilliant, because it acts as much a villain as the eponymous Babadook.  It’s cold, dark and uninviting, and we hate being there every bit as much as the characters.  Every second we’re in that house we feel uneasy, like something terrible is just around the corner (which inevitably it is), which plays right into Kent’s hands.  Her solid and skilful direction then enhances those feelings by always leading us on and positioning the camera in ways that makes us completely unable to predict where the horror is going to come from.  Her understanding of pacing is tremendous.

The film is absolutely terrific at creating atmosphere and building to scares.  If you can get through the whole thing without at least one chill creeping up your spine, hats off to you.  The first two acts is where it works best because it’s still in the realms of the unknown, where the audience is doing the work, creating images in their minds based on the Nosferatu-esque suggestion riddled throughout and dreading what kind of reveal they’re finally going to get… and then it all begins to break down.  The real problem of the film is that, as effective as it is when building to scares, pushing us to the edge of our seats, there’s never much in the way of a quality pay off.  Over and over we’re just getting ready to be terrified as the film lures us into dangerous territory, before it decides to stop, cut to morning and push out of the moment.  That’s a standard technique, of course, a variant of the Lewton Bus effect, and it’s totally valid in first act horror, but regularity with which it happens in The Babadook results in the whole thing just becoming a bit exhausting.  And it does go a bit Jeepers Creepers when we do finally get a proper glimpse…

I like that The Babadook is unconventional and sort of writes its own rules.  While I’m not sure I understood the ending at all, it’s impressively bizarre and sure to spark debate.  Essie Davis’s performance is brilliant, and in all the film does enough to warrant attention; it’s certainly worth a look on home video.  It just isn’t scary enough, and on reflection, occasionally a bit silly.  It also runs into that nasty problem of feeling really long when it’s a mere 89 minutes. There goes your peaceful night’s sleep?  Not quite.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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