The Babadook review: a terrifying, emotional character study

[Originally published on]

The Babadook is a unique and terrifying horror film which is practically guaranteed to stay with you for weeks after the credits roll. It truly is like nothing else out there and deserves to be watched not just by horror fans, but by fans of film in general.’

The directorial debut of Jennifer Kent, The Babadookmade a big splash at Sundance last year and was released in limited theaters in January, but it’s finally hitting Netflix and blu-ray this Tuesday. It tells the story of a single mother struggling to take care of her son, Sam, in the wake of her husband’s tragic death. The terror begins when the two read a strange storybook, “Mister Babadook,” about a supernatural creature that torments anyone made aware of his existence. “If it’s in a word or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”

Sure enough, Amelia and Sam are tormented by the creature, but this is far from the standard haunting story we’ve seen a million times before. For one thing, the characters in The Babadook are truly well developed. It’s a pretty substantial way into the movie before we’re even introduced to the Babadook, with the opening act focusing on Amelia and Sam’s relationship and her struggle as a single mother. If you’re coming to the movie simply for jump out of your seat moments, you might get a little restless here, but these scenes are extraordinarily well acted, emotional, and immediately get us invested in these two characters. Essie Davis’ performance as Amelia is stunning and completely heartbreaking, capturing someone dealing with grief and potentially mental illness very convincingly.

A lot of horror movies are built around the scares, and the characters seem like sort of an afterthought. Jennifer Kent approaches this story like it’s a normal drama film about a single mother, paying as much attention to the characters as any other movie would, and then adding in the horror elements in addition to that. These characters aren’t an afterthought to get us to the Babadook scares; they’re the reason the movie works. More than even a horror film, the movie ends up being a character study about this woman and a reflection on how grief and depression can come for a person, and how sometimes they can seem impossible to get rid of.

That’s not to say the movie isn’t scary, though. William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, said he’s never seen a film more terrifying than The Babadook. I don’t quite agree with him there, and setting up the film to be the scariest of all time will probably only lead to disappointment. The film is really more concerned with surrounding you with a creepy atmosphere than it is with making you jump out of your seat like so many horror films do today, and that’s actually pretty refreshing. Movies that focus on jump scares are like a rollercoaster: they’re fun while we’re watching them, but as soon as they’re over, that feeling immediately leaves us. Movies like The Babadook don’t quite offer as many immediate thrills, but in a more subtle way they leave us with a feeling of fear and paranoia that stays with us as the credits roll. It’s almost scariest after we’re finished watching and are lying in bed, trying to escape the terrifying mental images we’re left with.

The Babadook himself is a truly unique creation who deserves to enter the horror canon along with Freddy, Jason, Chucky, Jigsaw and the rest of the crew. His look is one of a kind and creepy as hell, but director Jennifer Kent understands here that less is more. We rarely see a full glimpse at The Babadook, as he’s usually standing in the shadows mostly covered by darkness. The movie plays with that primal fear of lying in your bed in the darkness and imagining there’s a creature there with you, and the terror of seeing something horrifying partially covered by darkness. Kent doesn’t cheap out, and we do get to see what the Babadook looks like a number of times, but we never see too much so that it no longer becomes scary.

The Babadook itself ends up being somewhat of a metaphor for depression and loss, represented in this creature that you can’t get rid of. The movie is just as much about these themes of loss as it is about scares, and even more than being an effective horror film, it’s just an extremely well made, low budget drama about the struggles of a single mother. The horror elements are almost a bonus. It’s not the scariest horror film out there, and horror veterans might walk away relatively unfazed, but for great characters, effective imagery and surprisingly emotional moments, Jennifer Kent’s film simply can’t be beat.

The Babadook will be available to stream on Netflix on April 14.

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