The best horror films succeed not because of the villain, be it a ax murderer or a supernatural force or a horde of hungry zombies. That element is always important but without compelling protagonists you’re left with an empty slasher film where the characters are just waiting to be picked off one by one. The Babadook delivers on all counts: it features a very scary monster, but more importantly the story centers on a hero that is damaged and scared, but possessing a reserve of courage. In other words, she is completely relatable.
Essie Davis stars as Amelia, a single mom whose husband died in a car crash as he drove her to the hospital to give birth to her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Samuel, now six, is a strange boy: obsessed with the possibility of monsters coming to get them he builds homemade weapons, including a crossbow that shoots darts and a shoulder mounted catapult. His acting out gets progressively worse, alienating Amelia's sister and forcing her to take him out of school. One night at bedtime he picks a book from the shelf that Amelia has never seen before, a hardback called Mr. Babadook. The illustrations suggest a less gory Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, with a creepy tale suggesting once you let in the Babadook, a monster in a cloak and top hat, he won’t leave until you’re dead. The books scares timid Samuel, and Amelia promptly throws it out. Of course, strange things immediately start to happen, and it becomes obvious that the Babadook has in fact entered their house.
Director Jennifer Kent, who also wrote the script, is not interested in “gotcha” scares, though they do come fast and hard later in the story. She’s more interested in the slow burn, establishing the characters and investing us in their plight. Amelia is a haunted character, pining for his husband all this time and resenting the strain this troubled child brings her. The characterization reminded me of The Shining (the book rather than the movie) because the evil force preys upon the weaknesses that already exist in the main character. Essie Davis does a fantastic job, as does young Noah Wiseman, who can be endearing but is just enough of a brat that one sympathizes with Amelia (up to a point.) The production design is great, particularly the design of the pop up Babadook book itself (illustrated by Alex Juhasz). It's a terrifying little prop, particularly when it reappears on Amelia's doorstep with a few added illustrations.
This Australian film was modestly budgeted, but any constraints are realized in such an artistic manner that it never shows. The Babadook itself is a terrifying creature, but much like the shark in Jaws, it's most scary when its presence is hinted at or just visible in the shadows. I hesitate to give away anything, but suffice it to say that Essie Davis' bad ass maternal instincts equal Sigourney Weaver's in Aliens. The climax of the film manages to be terrifying without really showing you much, and it's a tribute to the filmmakers that they don't need to; the audience is already there. What a fantastic scary movie.