Horror films, bless their heart, try so very hard. Most of them think they do, at least. Those that make them are obvious fans of the genre if not always attentive students. The simplest scares are often the best ones but too often have been reduced into cheap tricks that have become as much of a cliché as the original everyone tried to subvert. Jennifer Kent knows just where to begin with a child, his mom and a monster. Throw in just a few fresh images, a pair of great performances and enough creepy audio to have you fearing those dark corners again, and you have one entertaining and frightening experience in store.
Amelia (Essie Davis) has already experienced her share of horror. On the way to the hospital to deliver their first child, her husband is killed in a car wreck. Six years later her child, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), has grown up with a little ingenuity in his pocket. Making homemade inventions – that can only be a hazard inside the home – Amelia has her hands full between being a single mom and her nursing home job.
Samuel, like many small children, is convinced there is a monster roaming around the house. Nothing in the closet. Nothing under the bed. But there it is in the pages of his storybook entitled “Mr. Babadook.” Parents would read the Necronomicon if it would get their kids to sleep, but we all know the effect such pages have in the world of horror. Soon, mom begins to hear the creaky sounds around the house that turn into loud knocks and, try as she might, is unable to silent them.
After a setup so simplistic there is the temptation by most horror filmmakers to find the next turn and complicate matters further. Davis’ performance suggests an instability of grief that has been lingering ever since giving birth. Is the presence of The Babadook a suggestion that her mental state is beginning to slip and we are headed into a truly dark representation of post-partum depression? Writer/director Jennifer Kent, expanding on her 2005 short “Monster,” offers just the right level of speculation into broader themes without pulling the rug out from under us. This is a tale of something truly going bump in the night.
The Babadook wears its influences firmly on its sleeve to an extent that some viewers may feel like it’s just spinning its familiar wheels. A bit of The Haunting, a splash of The Shining and all the way up to 2013’s The Conjuring, Kent knows which wells to tap and yet does it so effectively through visuals and decibels that it never feels stale. We are caught up in each and every creepy scene and fearing for the fates of its characters.
The performances by Davis and young Wiseman are as good as they come in the genre. Davis wears the mask that appears to be cracking with each successive knock, creating a portrait of motherhood that is more believable than most family dramas. Wiseman is alternately the kind of bright-eyed, hyperactive “look at me” kid you want to put in the corner, and the young hero often celebrated in 1980s Amblin’ productions. They are perfectly matched up against a formidable foe that promises to get more horrific the more they try to hide from it. Kent, for certain, does not hide and instead goes full apparition ahead with the kind of ghost story that they do not seem to make anymore, helping to lead the argument that they should.