Sundance Review: THE BABADOOK

Jennifer Kent's family horror is terrifying until it gets a little overwrought. 

I grew up the child of a sometimes-crazy single mom, so The Babadook - Jennifer Kent’s feature film directorial debut - hit me on a very personal level. Amelia is raising her son, Samuel, alone because on the night he was born his father was killed in a car wreck. Every year as Samuel’s birthday approaches Amelia begins to bottom out emotionally, but as his 7th birthday nears things get truly weird. Samuel discovers a pop-up book called Mister Babadook on his shelf, and it’s as if Edward Gorey had decided to personally traumatize each child on Earth by hand-delivering a tome featuring them dying. Samuel becomes convinced that the Babadook of the book is real and that he’s in the house, and as strange events, weird noises, and creepy shadows proliferate Amelia doesn’t know what to think. Add all of the supernatural goings on to her annual breakdown and suddenly Samuel finds himself threatened not just by a demonic presence but also by a knife-wielding mom.

Before watching The Babadook I hoped it would feature a real monster; you can never tell with these Sundance genre films whether they’ll actually go full horror or hold back. But then I watched the movie and halfway through I realized I would be okay if there were no Babadook at all; Kent - who also wrote the screenplay - had constructed a tale of escalating horror that was actually terrifying. The spectre of Amelia slowly melting down on her 7 year old son was scarier than any monster could ever be. And when The Babadook finally made an appearance I was proven right.

The first half of The Babadook is simply a marvel, but once the third act begins there’s a real step down. Kent’s script makes the climax overwrought and seemingly endless, and she opts to show the Babadook just too much. The images in the book are enough, and the design - while laudably coming from a child’s nightmares - is slightly too silly to work effectively. Thankfully the film recovers with an amazing ending that recasts everything about the Babadook in a new light. Kent takes the creature and makes it into a perfect, amazing metaphor that speaks to why we even watch movies like The Babadook in the first place.

Essie Davis is exquisite as Amelia; with pale skin and straw hair and make-up-free eyes she presents a figure just at the verge of being beaten down, just about to break under the pressure. But she’s got a lot more going on, and Davis is able to switch from a woman on the edge to a woman far, far over the edge with terrifying ease. And while the film has other actors, it’s really a two-hander, with young Noah Wiseman as Samuel. Wiseman is phenomenal, giving the kind of child performance that escapes the boundaries of acting; it seems like the only way to get a kid to scream like that is to have him be actually, truly upset. If Wiseman was turning it off between takes he’s a monster talent who will one day take over the entire industry.

The Babadook is, to me, like Cooties - strong films that are very close to being absolutely excellent. I think The Babadook is still a great movie, I just wish that Kent had tightened up that last act a bit. Her chops are extraordinary, though, and The Babadook will definitely give nightmares to many viewers. It’s a movie that uses dread and suspense, not cheap jump scares. It’s also a movie that unsettles with deep psychological unpleasantness. And it’s got a pretty killer title, as well.