Black Friday is the big shopping day after Thanksgiving, but this year it was also the day a wonderfully dark new horror movie premiered on VOD. An Australian film called “The Babadook” dropped November 28, and it is certainly one of the better frighteners of the year. It has exceptionally vivid characters, intense scares, and an opening hour that invites comparisons to “The Exorcist”. Still, it has a few unfortunate flaws that keep it from reaching that upper echelon of horror.
Most horror films try to borrow a page from “The Exorcist” playbook by rendering a plot involving satanic possession. “The Babadook” takes a different angle, instead choosing to invite comparisons to the first hour of William Friedkin’s 1973 classic. In that hour, all the exposition and characterization were laid down methodically, as a distraught mother (Ellen Burstyn) explored all the varied medical reasons that could account for her daughter Regan (Linda Blair) acting up so. “The Babadook” treads similar ground, as its distraught Aussie mom tries to figure out what’s up with her strange son whose erratic behavior is starting to spin out of control.
Friedkin came from the world of documentary filmmaking so he knew how to make an audience believe his story by presenting it as straightforwardly as possible. Then when he ensured all hell broke loose in the second hour of “The Exorcist” story, we were totally buying into it, no matter how outlandish the narrative got. Here writer/director Jennifer Kent does something similar ensuring that we believe in all that is happening to this single mom and her disturbed six-year-old. That way, when the Babadook, a villain from a children’s pop-up book, starts tormenting them in the remainder of the story, we believe it’s possible.
It’s the aforementioned scary bedtime book, “The Babadook”, that Samuel (Noah Wiseman) asks his mom Amelia (Essie Davis) to read to him that ends up causing so much misery. The fallout makes the already troubled Samuel fear the Babadook will come to life and kill him. And while his addled mother tries to convince him it’s all make-believe, she soon is doubting her own words as strange events suggest a supernatural demon has indeed sprung from the pages. Are their visions of this monster to be believed or are their imaginations getting the best of them?
Wiseman gives an incredible performance as the boy creating a complex and forlorn child who’s capable of both sweetness and mania. And Davis gives one of the year’s most harrowing and disturbed tour de force performances as she cracks at the behest of the vicious entity running rampant in her house. She’s so good in fact, playing beguiling one moment and unhinged the next, that she merits serious Oscar consideration for Best Actress. Unfortunately, the Academy rarely honors those doing expert work in the horror genre, but one can always hope they’ll take notice of someone as fantastic as Davis is this year.
The Babadook indeed is real, and he’s preying upon their weaknesses, using them against both mom and son. It’s another nod to “The Exorcist” in a way, as the demon in that movie capitalized upon Father Karras’s ignorance of his ill mother’s needs. The Babadook wants them dead and the battle of wills that ensues will have you on the edge of your seat.
Kent is so clever and assured in her writing and directing of horror that she makes ripped pages of a book absolutely terrifying. About halfway through the movie, Amelia has had enough with all the drama around the child’s book so she destroys it by tearing its pages apart and tossing them in the garbage. But then the book shows up on her doorstep the next day and is pasted back together. As Amelia turns the pages she discovers a new ending to the story. New pop-up illustrations show her killing the family dog, her son and herself.
Kent uses sound design to great effect here too, creating scares out of both sound and silence. And she’s gotten A+ production values out of every department despite her meager 2.5 million dollar budget. Heck, that wouldn’t cover the promotional costs for the opening weekend of the umpteenth “Paranormal Activity” sequel.
So with all that going for it, why does “The Babadook” just miss greatness? Two reasons mar Kent’s superlative feature. The first is the treatment of the family dog. As soon as it shows up in the movie, you know it’s doomed. The easiest and laziest thing for a horror movie to do is make the family pet the first victim. Sadly, Kent succumbs to that narrative cliché and it lessens an otherwise smart script.
The second problem with the movie is in its presentation of the Babadook. It’s fine to keep him shrouded in shadows for most of the film, but at some point his full exposure is necessary. There’s a quick glimpse of him observed in a neighbor’s window reflection, but it’s not enough to truly register.
Steven Spielberg didn’t reveal his shark until the last third of “Jaws” (1975) but he did finally show us the full sea monster. And Ridley Scott showed us the entire “Alien” too in the final scene of his 1979 classic, so why didn’t Kent do the same here? Was it a budgetary problem? Did her special effects team fail to deliver a visually believable villain?
There are plenty of precedents for such illustrated frights working onscreen. The animated prologue to “Priest” (2011) was wonderfully unsettling, and the paper “Dragon” cutouts in that award-winning United Airlines commercial from 2006 were quite frightening as well. So why couldn’t a similar illustration style have worked here for the Babadook?
Still, despite those large flaws, Kent’s movie is something special. She’s one of the exceedingly rare horror filmmakers who realizes that scares really only work if the horrifying events are happening to characters we care about. It’s just too bad that she didn’t save the pet as Blake Snyder argued filmmakers should always do. And it’s unfortunate that her visualization of the Babadook was so underdeveloped. It’s the only part of this terrific film that was.