It seems really hard to do anything original with horror right now. The genre isn't dying, but it's slipping into a coma, for sure. Fright flicks are cyclical, though, and will rebound soon enough--just as they did after the 90s, PG-13 J-horror remakes, torture porn, and 80s brand-mining. Thankfully, writer/director Jennifer Kent's The Babadook provides a slight but reassuring spike in the life meter to see us through these dark times.
On the surface, this movie is everything we've seen before: a single mom notices changes in her angelic son. In this case, unexplained phenomena and odd behavior are brought on by reading a strange book called "Mister Babadook", which Amelia (Essie Davis) discovers on Samuel's (Noah Wiseman) shelf. After several days of dark visions, darker urges, and a clawed, top-hat-wearing gremlin going bump in the night, mom can't decide if she's losing her mind, or if the storybook monster is using her family's fear to manifest in the real world.
When Hellraiser, The Shining, and Trilogy of Terror are at our fingertips, it's really hard to sneak an "homage" past hard-core horror viewers. Luckily, what makes The Babadook worthwhile (unique, even) is Kent's achingly observed depiction of single motherhood. I don't know if she's lost a husband and had to raise a child, but the everyday gauntlets Amelia maneuvers are more chilling than anything lurking under Samuel's bed. In fact, this film is most effective when it centers on they dynamic between its sleep-deprived heroine and her son, who's desperate for affection from his emotionally unavailable mother.
Forget the jump scares (aided, I'm embarrassed to admit, by a top-notch sound team), The Babadook will freak you out with its hard, fast plunge into the gooey, secret feelings we're not even supposed to admit to ourselves. It's reasonable for Amelia to have never fully recovered from the car accident that took away her beloved husband (Benjamin Winspear)--which happened on the couple's way to the hospital to deliver Samuel. But we come to find out that she may have had more love for him than she does for her own child. Or are those dark thoughts the work of Mister Babadook?
Two terrific performances reinforce the screenplay's heart. Davis sells the anguish of sleep deprivation and paints Amelia as a strong woman who's just in sight of her will's limits. As Samuel, Wiseman's easiest comparison is to that of Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. It's also an apt connection, as both child actors elevated their spook-show material through natural, memorable performances. Wiseman keeps his character from becoming another generic, bug-eyed Creepy Kid by portraying Samuel as a normal boy whose difficult life takes on far more layers than even his beyond-his-years defenses can handle.
I would love to see Kent tackle some non-genre material next. The Babadook is a fine showcase of her insightful writing and effectiveness as a filmmaker, but (intentional or not) she gets just bogged down enough in horror tropes to make this movie memorable--but not necessarily worthy of adding to the shelf.
Note: It wasn't a deal breaker, but one scene involving a character death perfectly illustrates my underlying issue with The Babadook. The moment is telegraphed several scenes before, and I hoped to God that Kent was setting up one of horror's easiest, queasiest gimmicks for a zero-hour switcheroo. Unfortunately, she plays straight into the hands of convention. Instead of registering the intended shock, I sighed and thought, "C'mon, movie, you're better than that."