The Babadook is the rare horror film that is both limitlessly creepy and supremely insightful. With a $2 million budget, director Jennifer Kent had to creatively allocate resources to create a movie where decisions obviously made to accommodate cost appear as natural and deliberate as a far more expensive movie. Paradoxically, The Babadook is a perfect example of how lack of money seems to spur more originality than unlimited funds.
In fact, The Babadook probably never would’ve been made in the US. This isn’t a very “‘Murica!” oriented horror flick. There is barely any gore, there are no jump scares, no shocking makeup (at least, not in the traditional sense), an abundance of incredibly deep symbolism and very little violence. In fact, whether or not the monster exists at all is purely up to interpretation.
The Babadook, an 8 foot tall cloaked figure sporting a top hat that serves as a representation of grief, steps into the lives of a young boy named Sammy (Noah Wiseman) and his mother Amelia (Essie Davis) through the pages of a demented pop-up book. Of course, the grief itself started far before then. A car crash on the way to the hospital to deliver Sammy costs Amelia’s husband, Sammy’s father, his life. The shadow of his departure hangs gloomily over the two and their household. Amelia is weak-willed, dwelling on the past and clueless about how to express love towards, or how to control, her misbehaving son. Sammy is a difficult child, incessantly obsessed with weapons, who regularly hurts other children and who blames his troubles on imaginary (or are they?) monsters.
The Babadook’s disturbing image within the creepy popup book is drawn with a speech bubble saying “let me in!”, and the film’s first two acts gradually and masterfully shift in tone as the two, and Amelia especially, unwittingly start to do exactly that. The threat of the Babadook hangs heavy in the air of Amelia and Sammy’s house, as Amelia and Sammy’s sleep deprivation and constant fear cause the literal decay of everything around them.
The third act is the least impeccable, resorting to a more classic survival-horror structure. That’s not to say that the third act isn’t terrifying, just that the inevitable physical presence of the Babadook can’t match the feeling of ominous, building anticipation that graces the first two acts. Resorting to a format more traditional than acts one and two is disappointing in comparison. Though the film’s final half hour is still one of the most creatively constructed in horror history, its return to relative normalcy seems hypocritical, considering how frequently The Babadook seems to enjoy mocking normal horror tropes (in one scene, an enraged Amelia pulls a kitchen knife on Sammy, only to then use it for a relatively nonviolent purpose).
It’s all tied together with flawless editing and a perfect sense of timing that goes farther than multi-million dollar effects in lending The Babadook a feeling of grim introspective into its characters. What doesn’t always contribute to this same feeling is the lighting, which is at times so dark that everything on screen seems to become one large, amorphous blob. As much as The Babadook seems entirely created with deliberacy, the lighting can sometimes make important scenes difficult to make out.
But a traditional third act and under-lighting are tiny scars upon an otherwise perfect black rose of a film. The Babadook uses horror as it was meant to be used: not to shock or thrill, but to provide introspection into ourselves through the lens of a monstrous darkness. Watching The Babadook can remind you of what this oversaturated genre is capable of, and what it is currently failing to do in the States. It is undeserving of the cult-classic status that started to surround it even before it came out. It should be recognized as a full classic, all on its own.