The Babadook opens in select cities this weekend. It screens at Chicago's Music Box Theatre on December 19.
Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook is not quite the horror marvel that some critics are claiming, but it is an effective genre send-up of considerable craft. In what is Kent’s debut, she has a keen eye for detail, insuring that the atmosphere she has shaped is cultivated for maximum fright. But despite the primal fear that she evokes, it’s hard not to shake off the facile narrative or unresolved themes. Despite The Babadook’s remarkable production design and strong performances, this is a film of surface pleasures - scratching beyond the surface leads to more surface.
Birth and death go hand in hand as Amelia (Essie Davis) lost her husband in a car accident as the two were driving to the hospital to give birth to Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Samuel, looking forward to his upcoming birthday, is something of a victim of circumstance, often finding himself at the wrong place at the wrong time or acting irrationally - as most six years olds tend to do. It’s waning down on his mother, who goes through the motions of checking under the bed and in the closet to subdue her child’s fear.
Picking up a book for his mother to read, Samuel selects The Babadook - a daunting, dull-red bound book that only looks more out of place in the colorless universe that Kent’s film takes place. Reading the book provokes the expected nightmare in Samuel, though in reading it out loud, the book seems to have conjured a spirit that looks for a host.
Kent connects the drama and horror to human circumstances of lost love and maternal strain. Like any good horror film, the concerns here are multifaceted - Amelia both misses her husband and tests her resolve for unconditionally loving her son when he keeps on getting in trouble. The concern is valid: when the memory of the accident haunts her dreams, how can she not look at her son and see a bad omen? Kent realizes these concerns in genuinely terrifying ways, with a figure resembling the Slender Man constantly lingering in the shadows. The soul-sucking visual presentation of the film, stripped of virtually any color, is especially effective in amplifying the third-acts trump cards of horror.
Still, The Babadook never quite reconciles its thematic intent in a particularly effective way nor is its overarching narrative especially interesting. Perhaps it doesn’t go to the extremes that I would have liked? I liken the picture to Lynne Ramsay’s significantly more terrifying domestic Western, We Need to Talk About Kevin. There, the film amplifies horror in a less abstract way, grounding itself in a more brutal human reality that speaks more to a human experience than Kent’s film seems to be striving for. There’s definitely something to be said about Kent’s vision, but The Babadook’s ambitions are ultimately confined to its genre trappings, failing to expand on the promise of its craft. Kent remains someone to watch, and The Babadookis certainly garnering a healthy cult audience, but it’s not quite the achievement that it could have been.