When he discovers a pop-up book about a monstrous creature that stalks children in their homes on the shelf in his room, Samuel’s behavior worsens. He convinces himself that the creature, called The Babadook, is out to kill him. Amelia wants nothing more than to curl up in a ball and wait for help. But when a darkened figure floats through her room, it dawns on her that Samuel may not be so crazy after all.
I had the opportunity a few years back to have dinner with George A. Romero. There was a point when someone at the table asked about the social undertones in his films. I don’t recall his exact response, but I remember him becoming slightly enraged by that word...undertones. That the in-your-face attacks on racism, consumerism and traditional notions of masculinity running through his films could be construed as background noise was appalling to him. I imagine Romero would be a big fan of The Babadook. A film that wears its allegory on its sleeve, and its collar, and its pant leg and everywhere else, it builds horror via Amelia’s inability to connect with her son. She wants so desperately to love him, but her face, twisted with tension, belies her apprehension. I don’t recall any closeups of her hands, but if we saw them, I imagine the nails would be chewed down to the quick. The dread of dealing with him each day, once an invisible demon buried deep inside her, has outwardly manifested itself in the form of an inky-black monster.
Davis gives a masterful performance as Amelia . Her bone-white skin and pallid eyes the portrait of a woman on the verge of a breakdown. I loved watching her hair change as she spiraled into the trap of her own mind, warm and coiffured at the start, an unruly nest of tangles by film’s end. Wiseman matches her intensity at every turn. It’s considered taboo in movies to hurt a child. In The Babadook, Wiseman creates a kid you want to punch in the face.
The Babadook is a new horror flick, but it has its roots in the supernatural pictures of yesteryear. In an era dominated by torture porn, it succeeds in building suspense the old-fashioned way. It effectively rejects the showy, gore-slicked inclinations of modern horror movies in lieu of a tense, psychological approach. It is tight, don’t get me wrong. It develops at a rapid rate. I was reminded of the films of Edgar Wright: all the excess fat has been trimmed from the edges. In fact, that’s my one knock against the film. Scenes build torturously only to terminate as the horror hits its peak. The audience is not provided time to ruminate on what they just witnessed. Characters are introduced only to disappear a moment later, leaving the audience a bit puzzled. But this is a minor argument against a film that otherwise approaches perfection.
The movie threatens to regress into familiar territory in its third act, however, hits you with a twist in its final moments that is not only gutsy, but completely without warning. Some demons you just can’t shake, they haunt you for life. You have to learn to deal with them.