A Mother & Son Nightmare (Film Review: The Babadook”)

One of the most disturbing psycho-horror films ever made, just in time for Halloween . . . and a cautionary tale of Motherhood gone awry.

SnapShot Plot

In the critically acclaimed debut film from Aussie writer/director Jennifer Kent, The Babadook defies explanation and expectation in its chilling portrait of a mother and son whose bleak world is quickly going off the rails, due in large part to an odd children’s pop-up book that mysteriously appears on the shelf. Veteran actress, Essie Davis gives a flat-out, tour de force performance as Amelia, a grief-stricken and sleep-deprived widow struggling to raise her young son, Samuel, a high-strung boy with attachment/abandonment issues and a penchant for strange, crudely improvised weapons. Young Noah Wiseman delivers a startling and unsettling portrait of Samuel, an inquisitive and diminutive boy with eyes and teeth too big for his face and a screechy, insistent voice that can’t help but grate on his mother’s shredding nerves. If only Amelia could get a decent night’s sleep, maybe her love for Samuel might feel more natural, less forced. To make matters worse, Samuel is a pariah wherever he goes, and his already strange behavior is now veering toward violence, making mother and son an unwelcome presence among family and friends. And their somber Victorian house, awash in a depressing mono-chromatic gray, offers no sanctuary from the outside world; indeed it becomes the very womb from which the most unspeakable evil begins to take form, in the shape of the crudely drawn title figure of the book, Mr. Babadook.

 “If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook”


“Psycho, Alien, Diabolique , and now THE BABADOOK.” (William Friedkin, Dir., The Exorcist)

Parting Shot

The Babadook is the kind of horror film that rarely happens, the kind of movie that subtly, sneakily seeps into your imagination, stirring expectations only some of which are realized. A film that registers on several levels at once, making a single interpretation an altogether flimsy exercise in appreciation. Nonetheless we are drawn to the big question here, on the very nature of the reality set forth in the movie. Is there really such a thing as the Babadook, or is he the horrible manifestation of one desperately unhappy and exhausted mother and her peculiar, petulant child? Doesn’t Samuel, in fact, even resemble the Babadook, crude though the monster is drawn in the pop-up book? For a time I was convinced that this must be the wildly aberrant fallout of a chronic form of postpartum depression mixed with years of unyielding sleep deprivation. And then the movie took a turn and I found myself captivated, horrified, and saddened on an emotional level hardly ever found in the horror genre. You can count on one hand the number of movies which manage to scare us to death while breaking our hearts at the same time because we see ourselves in the turmoil and torment of the characters themselves. The Exorcist, Carrie and Poltergeist come to mind as examples of horror films whose impact is even more profound because their stories are so Human at their core.

From a production standpoint, The Babadook stands as an exception to the rule, for what it manages to do on a mere $2.5 Million budget (plus $30K from a Kickstarter campaign). From Jennifer Kent’s masterful direction to the sinister cinematography of Radek Ladczuk and eerie production design by Alex Holmes, the world of Amelia and Samuel exists in its own nightmarish dreamscape, punctuated in startling ways by the sound editing of Simon Njoo. It’s no wonder the film was one of the most critically acclaimed movies, worldwide, in 2014.

Because our point of view in the film remains firmly that of Amelia, our final takeaway depends on whether or not we believe her, after all. But what does it really matter if your understanding of The Babadook is couched in psychiatry or the paranormal? Isn’t it unspeakable horror enough to be trapped in the tragedy of the past, not quite awake or asleep, resentful of the one being to whom the utmost love should flow, and guilt-stricken for feeling that way? In a climactic ‘showdown’ moment, when Amelia roars, “You are trespassing in my house!,” I realized that her voice, up to now, had barely registered beyond a whisper, as if she was hardly present in her own life. In that moment of galvanizing confrontation, Amelia finally emerges from her somnambulant state, alert and intact, but is her awakening too late to save them both? You might find the answer in a look, or in a book, just make sure it’s not Mr. Babadook!

The Babadook is presently streaming on Netflix.

Norma’s Streaming Picks is proud to announce squatters rights on a new site for Baby Boomers, Midcentury/Modern as well as right here on my own site. I invite you to go there for more great content!

YouTube Trailer Courtesy of:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k5WQZzDRVtw



1 Comment

  • Julie Straley says:

    Great review and I couldn’t agree more! This was an unexpected surprise. i was actually frightened in a way I haven’t been from films for years.

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