Children in movies are, by definition, annoying. No matter what genre, no matter the story, and no matter the circumstances; kids are just the worst when it comes to cinema. Even good movies like It Follows or a classic like E.T. gets on my nerves with how much whining I’ll hear. So when people were saying way back in 2014 that the small boy in the Aussie horror flick The Babadook was absolutely grating I hesitated to give this a shot. On the one hand the people were right in how child actor Noah Wiseman is worse than nails on a chalkboard. But what makes The Babadook truly outstanding is how it casually makes an about-face and turns a solid horror movie into something much more.
If you don’t already know The Babadook is the titular monster. He is a child’s absolute nightmare from a children’s story and God knows how any publisher thought that was a good idea to print. At first you expect this to be a typical creature feature where the monster attacks the Mom and her child is inevitably in danger. You would be absolutely right but only for the first half of this picture. Very slowly you start to realize this creature is not just a physical danger but also, and mostly, a mental danger. For you see the single Mother, played by Essie Davis, is going through some troubling issues what with her husband dying a horrible death a few months ago. Even if by the end of this film the creature becomes a real entity for the most part we can imagine that all of this is an excuse to really go to town on her child.
Look, I’m not advocating at all that abuse is okay or even punishing your child ala spanking. But Noah Wiseman plays such a perfect, piece of shit kid that it is hard not to advocate some kind of violence. He is breaking things all the time, screaming CONSTANTLY in your ear, and cannot shut up about this “imaginary” monster. It was a close decision to NOT turn this movie off because of how frustrating it is to see this widow trying to keep her son in line. But something weird starts to happen. Eventually the tone of the film switches to its horror state and we, somehow, start rooting for this kid. Mostly because we end up realizing that everything this kid was doing was for a reason which is a trope I personally do not enjoy in films. Somehow we are loving it that this kid turns ‘Home Alone‘ on us and can match wits with this creature.
This movie does a successful job by giving you the creeps. Once the Babadook starts messing with this Mother’s head the film’s tone becomes ‘dread’. Not only does she start hallucinating some truly awful stuff but the quick cutting doesn’t make things better. There is a newscast from a nightmare she has that ends in the creepiest image ever that I don’t wanna spoil. But even to this day I am thinking about that image and I get goosebumps. The titular monster itself is a fascinating thing to look at too. Like a shadow he slinks in the darkness and that design of the top hat & cape makes him stand out from most of today’s horror creatures.
Ultimately though this movie is about how a woman tries to keep her sanity in the darkest of moments. The Babadook might end up being a real creature who poses a real threat but at the end of the day this is all a metaphor for depression. The more she thinks how awful her life is the more power this monster has control over her. It might make scenes of her bad mouthing her son somewhat funny because you don’t expect such horrible things being spouted to a young kid. (And, again, it isn’t like the bad mouthing is not justified.) But then when things get real this becomes a movie about child abuse more than a horror movie and that’s where the genius comes in. Get rid of all the supernatural elements and all you get is a widow mother on the verge of a mental breakdown. If Jennifer Kent doesn’t get more chances to put a spin on more horror tropes then the world isn’t fair.
Hopefully this mildly spoiler filled review doesn’t dissuade you from giving The Babadook a shot. It is a genuinely creepy film and that is a rare commodity these days with the horror genre. But what Jennifer Kent does is spin this creature feature into a complex story about loss, depression, and coping with your child. Again, it can’t be stressed enough that Noah Wiseman portrays the most annoying child in the history of cinema. But stick with this for more than half its run time. Trust me, you will not regard sticking with such an unruly beast before getting to the real terror.