In “The Babadook,” an Australian horror flick from newcomer Jennifer Kent, horror films are as much of a character as the damaged mother and son at its center. Invoking the Universal monster classics, the movie is short on thrills and long on chills. But ultimately, it’s easier to admire for its craftsmanship than its scares.
Still reeling from the death of her husband seven years ago, the widowed Amelia (Essie Davis, “Burning Man”) tries and fails to convince her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), that those storybook monsters he searches under the bed for aren’t real. But when a mysterious and terrifying book called “Mister Babadook” appears on their shelf, Amelia begins a spiral into madness, wondering if there really is something lurking in the shadows.
The best thing about “The Babadook” is Essie Davis’ incredible performance as a single mother coming undone. Often, she says more with her face than her words, and even when she hits rock bottom it’s hard not to empathize with her. Aided by the promising Kent, Essie elevates the movie to something impossible to miss. And Kent simply doesn’t miss a thing. The choices she makes are jarring in all the right ways. Seemingly inexplicable time lapses and minor details come to dominate the narrative. But as the film creeps under the viewer’s skin, it’s not the titular monster that stays there. It’s those small details.
Amelia’s aching jaw, Sam’s sickly pale skin and the monster movies playing on their TV so often reinforce one thing: the real Babadook exists internally, not externally, and like any good monster movie, it’s the internal forces that tear characters apart. It’s this draw- ing from a range of influences, from Sam Raimi to Georges Melies, Kent makes “The Babadook” a compendium of horror history.
With such a weight behind it, one would think that the movie would deliver. In some respects, it does. The atmosphere, for example, is incredible. Every scene is soaked with dread and is never wrung dry. But when the eponymous crea- ture is revealed, the tension all but dissolves. And this is a big problem with monster movies. Rarely, if ever, is a monster scary enough to terrify in the light as much as it does in the dark. Darkness is key, and it’s powerful. For the first hour, Kent harnesses night and day equally to make Mister Babadook something more than a fairy tale monster. And while he’s never fully revealed, enough is to make him just another skittering shadow in just another horror movie.
The ending offers some hope for redemption. It’s deli- ciously ambiguous and, may- be for some viewers, hard to swallow. But the best movies are divisive. If it weren’t for the derivative final half, “The Babadook” could have etched its name into the annals of classic monster horror. For now, Mister Babadook will have to stay in his flipbook