Spoilers might need a bedtime story.
Every now and then, I love running into a horror film that is, first and foremost, a well crafted film. And it is, so much so that one could argue that it’s first and foremost a drama than an actual horror film. This is definitely not one for the casual popcorn crowd. Horror films, so well centered and doing away with hollywood cliches about motherhood are rare.
The Babadook (2014) was written and directed by Jennifer Kent. Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother who lost her husband in a car crash on the day they drove to the hospital to gave birth. Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is her young son, who exhibits some behavioral issues and has the strange habit of building makeshift weapons to fend off imaginary monsters.
This movie does away with jumpscares and focuses more on building its characters and constructing a realistic picture of grief and loneliness. For this, the movie invest its precious time showing us the life of a single mother dealing with grief and a young boy that proves to be handful as they try to cope with their lives.
The color palette is muted so much into blacks and greys that it could almost be a black and white picture. And yet, it looks great. The performances are amazing, specially from the leads. Essie Davies’ Amelia embodies the trials and tribulations of a grieving widow dealing with a hyperactive child. Noah Wiseman’s performance of Samuel starts off as plainly annoying but his character builds up as the film goes along.
The actual Babadook starts as a character in children’s book, one that Samuel picks by chance without ever learning where it came from. Amelia reads the rhyme and follows the story along, but soon discovers this story does not seem to turn out for the better. Samuel becomes truly haunted by the book, constantly spouting off about it and alienating Amelia’s scarce friends.
Most horror films zone in on breaking the 4th wall to scare the audience. In this story, the fear comes in for the characters. We are the bystanders, and we’re more scared out of empathy since these are characters we care about. There are no specific jumpscares, or no cheap ones at the very least. The music is often muted. There’s more concern for what could happen to the leads than there is about scaring the viewer.
That might sound like the movie is not scary, but I would argue that this is a horror film that does away with the easy scare and goes for the buildup. As such, the actual Babadook is not the center part of the film. This is not a creature film in which we’re going to see how hideous and shocking this thing looks when it appears, but rather it’s the possibility of it lurking about that can bring the fear. It’s the desperation and frustration of Amelia’s life that adds considerable gravitas to the plot.
The film also breaks some cinema tropes about motherhood. Amelia does not have a sixth-sense, she is not the perfect mother, she makes mistakes and does lose her patience eventually as Samuel seems to get worse about his obsession with the creature from a book. It takes a long time before the movie starts hinting there could be anything to this Babadook tale more than a child’s hyperactive imagination. Even when it does, those hints and suggestions could still have a psychological explanation given the stress that both Amelia and Samuel are under.
Highly recommended for fans of film and horror with one reservation that’s more of a hesitation. Essie Davies’ performance alone is worth this movie. It’s not a creature movie, or a gore one, which is why I hesitate to recommend it to pure horror fans. I was loving the cinematography, the performance and the focus on character building so much that I almost forgot I was in a horror film. Someone more focused on waiting for the monster to show up, might find it very slow. It is a scary film, but it is also a lot more. I’ve never seen grief depicted so vividly in a film until Hereditary. Now that is horror.
That will do for now.