The Babadook review: Does it live up to the hype?
I have to admit that after watching the first trailer for Jennifer Kent’s debut feature The Babadook, I wasn’t blown away, and thought it would be another film in the style of Insidious or Sinister; worth a watch, but nothing classic. Then as the release grew nearer, the five-star reviews came flooding in, hailing it a complete triumph, with some likening it to The Exorcist and even The Shining.
As a big fan of horror, the film now had my attention and I rushed out to see it on the weekend of release. So was it as terrifying as critics had made out? Does it haunt you for days after? Is it comparable to The Shining? Well for me, the answer to all the aforementioned questions is sadly a big no. This is by no means a bad film I might add; the parts it gets right are impressive, but overall, it did not deliver all that it promised.
The film follows the story of Ameila, and her difficult six year old son, Samuel, who is something of an outsider and obsessed that a character named The Babadook is coming for him. His mother dismisses this as nothing more than another figment of his imagination, after all, there is nothing remotely normal about Samuel. He makes weapons in his spare time, alienates other children, and is bullied as a result. Even his own mother can’t cope with him at the best of times, and is crumbling under the pressure of work and the sleepless nights his needy nature brings her.
It’s this mother/son relationship that sets this film apart from the kind of film that might have been made at the hands of Hollywood. In the majority of US films, if a child character is unlikeable, it’s usually because they are truly evil (The Omen and Orphan spring to mind) or just not very good actors and as a result, become annoying (or both). In The Babadook, Samuel clearly has some mental health issues that make him incredibly difficult, and at times very irritating, but you still have sympathy for him too.
Essie Davis gives a strong performance as the overworked and stressed-out mum, who is pining for love and still not over the tragic death of her husband (he died in a car crash taking Amelia to the hospital whilst in labour with Samuel). Noah Wiseman delivers a decent performance, especially for such a young actor, and only puts a foot wrong on a few occasions towards the end of the film.
A sense of dread and despair runs through the first hour or so, which really is where much of the horror lies in The Babadook, as opposed to a string of predictable jump-scares that you might expect. The pop-up book entitled ‘mister babadook’ is brilliantly done, and kudos to the sound team, who have also done a stellar job. The monster itself is thankfully not some nightmarish, demonic mash-up of a Womble, Paddington Bear and Freddy Krueger as the films promotional posters suggest, but a far creepier, sinister creature, mostly lurking in the shadows.
You get the feeling the film is building towards something spectacular and horrifying, but the final act just doesn’t pay off, and loses its way considerably, seemingly indecisive as to which genre of horror it wants to be. There were parts where myself and other audience members were laughing, and this is clearly not intended to be a comedy-horror.
The finale itself is baffling and leaves the door wide open for a sequel, making you wonder if the journalists at all the press screenings that put the film in the same league as classics such as The Omen and The Shining were plied with far too much free booze, or spiked with acid. Rather tellingly, the user reviews popping up on the likes of Rotten Tomatoes are currently averaging at 76%, which seem much more realistic than the 95% critic review score.
For the most part, The Babadook is a competent horror that dares to be different, but is sadly let down by a disappointing climax that leaves you feeling short-changed as opposed to terrified. As Jennifer Kent’s first stab at writing and directing a feature film, it still shows a lot of promise. Let’s hope the inevitable sequel builds upon the mystery of The Babadook and answers the many questions the audience is left asking at the end of this film. ***1/2