Friday 27 December 2019

Movie Review: The Babadook (2014)

A horror film about a damaged mother-son relationship, The Babadook offers a few potent scares but mostly settles for familiar psych territory.

Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mom struggling to raise her six year old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) while working as an attendant at a seniors' care home. Her husband Oskar died in a car accident while driving her to the hospital to give birth, and Samuel is all too familiar with the story of his dad's death. Obsessed with monsters and often unable to sleep, Sam is traumatized his mother may also die and vows to protect her. His difficult behaviour gets him into trouble at school.

One night Samuel chooses Mister Babadook as a nighttime story book for his mom to read to him, and Amelia is horrified to find it filled with violent pop-up imagery featuring the monstrous Mr. Babadook, as well as taunts and threats of death. The story heightens Samuel's agitation, and despite Amelia's efforts to hide then destroy the book, The Babadook invades their house. A mother's already difficult life descends to a new level of horror.

An independent Australian production written and directed by Jennifer Kent, The Babadook features a strong start and middling resolution. The opening packs a strong punch thanks to a child-in-peril premise, young Samuel clearly disturbed and reaching a point of physical agitation preventing him from functioning in society. Kent paints Samuel's condition and the tension between mother and child with bold and uncompromising strokes, creating an impressive sense of mounting dread.

Once The Babadook monster starts knocking on the door and invading Amelia's life, the film loses much of its menace. The second half is notionally about a monster causing havoc in an already strained household, but defaults to a quite obvious metaphor about the corrosiveness of unexpressed grief and the often suppressed travails of motherhood. Amelia is a less interesting cinematic horror antagonist than Samuel, and The Babadook plays itself out along familiar lines, including overuse of bump-in-the-night type cheap tricks.

Although a few secondary characters exist around the margins of Amelia's life, the film is essentially a two person drama. Essie Davis delivers a committed physical performance, but again she is more effective as the overwhelmed and utterly exhausted mother in the film's first half. Kent draws a good performance out of young Noah Wiseman, who gets to scream an awful lot.

While The Babadook introduces a potentially frightening, insistent and insidious shadowy presence, as usual the real monster resides deep within.

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