The Babadook, 2014
Directed by Jennifer Kent
Starring Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West and Tim Purcell
A single mother, plagued by the violent death of her husband, battles with her son’s fear of a monster lurking in the house, but soon discovers a sinister presence all around her.
The horror movie is in bad shape. What horror makes into cinemas now risks becoming as lazy a cinematic type as the rom-com, and the movies are already about as predictable. Those vaguely innovative horror films that break through to mainstream audiences, meanwhile, are typically latched upon by studios, then sequelised and drained until they’re artistically dry. And so we’re constantly waiting for the next great white hope of horror cinema, one that won’t succumb to the pitfalls of diminishing franchise returns, one that might be free of the cynicism of a genre done comfortably to death.
For many critics, The Babadook was that film in 2014. Widely praised for the way it takes horror staples and uses them to explore grief and depression in the home, what’s perhaps most satisfying is the knowledge that director Jennifer Kent won’t follow her debut – about a widow (Essie Davis) and her problem-child son (Noah Wiseman) haunted by a character from a children’s story – with a sequel.
Mr Babadook, appearing first in a niftily designed pop-up book, and the havoc he wreaks upon one suburban Australian home is a symbol of one woman’s inability to make sense of both her husband’s death and her son’s increasingly erratic behaviour. It’s the horror movie as metaphor for something more meaningful than a filmmaker’s desire to scare, featuring an iconic monster, some genuinely dreadful moments and a potentially star-making lead performance (Davis, when she leans more towards the unhinged, is fearsome).
But while it’s more psychologically or emotionally complex than most modern horror movies even try to be, The Babadook still provides a familiar rundown of the supernatural slasher and haunted house clichés. The shadows hide monsters, doors swing open at random, disbelieving authorities dismiss complaints from the victimised protagonist all too easily – the rhythms of modern horror are present and correct, leaving us able to predict where the scares will come from, and when. How this all goes feels mapped.
The film is better taken as a psychological thriller and domestic drama with emotions writ large and demons made literal. Kent’s confidence in exploring the infinite chasm that is the depressed human mind betrays her status as a neophyte writer and director. Her handling of a set-piece is similarly assured. If only she didn’t draw so heavily from classic movies past.
In its closing moments, The Babadook lays key influences bare; it becomes The Shining meets Home Alone, with Davis’s maniacal parent-on-the-edge pitted against Wiseman’s set-upon youngster and his home-built traps. There’s an Exorcist-style shuddering bed, while the whole film follows the Paranormal Activity pattern: hauntings viewed from the bed at night are followed by respite in daylight, with the cycle continuing per each new sunrise and sunset. The narrative feels efficiently prepared, but rigid.
It could be that what’s derivative about The Babadook was used to ease modern horror-heads and gorehounds into a story with more depth than they usually expect or seek from the genre, and that critics overlooked this unfortunate feature because of the positive net effect. If that’s the case, then must we also admire the film’s intentionally grey colour palette for what it achieves – an evocative sense of muted despair – even though it renders the movie uninteresting to look at? The Babadook may be the best that horror has to offer right now, but it’s still not the genre’s best.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Brogan Morris – Lover of film, writer of words, pretentious beyond belief. Thinks Scorsese and Kubrick are the kings of cinema, but PT Anderson and David Fincher are the young princes. Follow Brogan on Twitter if you can take shameless self-promotion.