Directed by: Jennifer Kent
Premise: A widowed mother (Essie Davis) struggles to raise her six year old son (Noah Wiseman) who is convinced that he is being terrorized by a ghost. The mother is pushed to the edge by the boy’s fear of the Babadook which might be a delusion or might be real.
What Works: One of the popular themes in horror throughout the 2010s was tales of domestic hauntings. This wasn’t a new idea—haunted houses have been a mainstay of horror since before the advent of film—but throughout this decade stories of families beleaguered by spirits in their own home were quite popular and among one of the most successful examples of this was the 2014 Australian film The Babadook. This is fundamentally a domestic haunting in which a single mother and her son are threatened by a supernatural presence. But The Babadook would actually be frightening viewing even without the ghostly presence because of the way it so viscerally depicts the exhaustion of parenthood. The mother has been widowed and is raising her son by herself. The boy doesn’t make things easy for her and the mother struggles with the daily demands of parenthood, often going through the day sleep deprived and cycling between bouts of anger and guilt. In fact, the Babadook might not even be real; the specter might just be the projection of the mother’s grief and frustration. The filmmakers capture the grind of childrearing and that gives The Babadook a lot of credibility which is important to a ghost story. One of the keys to making supernatural horror work is to overcome the audience’s disbelief and good supernatural stories are usually otherwise grounded and take their time bringing the characters around to acknowledging the reality of ghosts. That’s done well in The Babadook and the survival of the mother and son hinges upon her acknowledging what is real, which by extension means coming to terms with the emotions she’s kept bottled up. The Babadook also succeeds as an exercise in filmmaking craft. The picture uses shadows effectively with threats creeping in from the dark spaces on the screen and the sound mix and editing are exceptional. This film is best played with the sound turned way up because it has abrupt shifts in volume and unusual use of ambient sounds that are very distressing.
What Doesn’t: The ending of The Babadook is somewhat inconclusive. Open endings are popular in the horror genre and this movie deserves credit for finding a different way to resolve matters than the usual staking or burning of the monster. However, the conclusion of The Babadook raises questions about the nature of the supernatural and its relationship to the mother and her son but the story ends before explaining any of that. It’s the kind of conclusion that’s meant to provoke the audience and give them something to talk about once the movie is over and it successfully does that.
DVD extras: The Blu-ray edition includes the short film “Monster” and deleted scenes, featurettes, interviews, and a trailer.
Bottom Line: The Babadook is a frightening horror picture and one of the finest entries in the genre from the 2010s. It’s a film that’s likely to play differently to viewers who are older or who have children of their own but for everyone else it is an intelligent and well-crafted scare.
Episode: #769 (October 6, 2019)