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The Babadook

The Babadook

Director: Jennifer Kent

Writer: Jennifer Kent

Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Tim Purcell, Barbara West, Hayley McEhlinney, Benjamin Winspear.

The Babadook is an Australian horror film based on a 2005 Australian short film. A widow who's been grieving for seven years lives with a crazy son who's obsessed with defending himself against monsters. His fears are then validated when a monster with a weird name (it's either an anagram for "a bad book" or based off Serbian for boogeyman. Or both) shows up.

It's easy to root for the mother. The movie spends time at its beginning showing just how miserable everything is for the mom; still a wreck from her husband's death seven years ago, working a boring job, and dealing with the kid, who's taking things so far he's started bringing darts to school. You can understand when she gets angry, so it doesn't hurt her likability much. The kid tends to go back and forth; there are moments when he gets really annoying, and even though this was probably intentional to make us identify with the mother more, it still presents the problem that one of the main characters is irritating. Though these moments tend to be near the beginning of the movie, and he has his own assortment of problems to justify them; once things really go down hill he's fine. The movie even manages to get some tears shed for him. They both live in a house that's very well designed to look like the most depressing place on Earth, which is pretty much coated in grey to set it apart from outside.

The Babadook had a budget of two million dollars (and it made it back fifty fold, so don't be surprised if "The Babadook 2" comes out in the near future), and you don't need to look it up to guess it was low. There's a brief use of CGI that's really bad, and the monster itself is animated in blatant stop motion, which to be fair was probably intentional but still can end up steering your thoughts away from the movie. And stock sound effects are sprinkled around. The monster's given the ability to either turn invisible or move things without touching them so the kid can just pretend it's jerking him around, and it follows the usual low budget film tactic of keeping the monster in the shadows for most of the movie.

As is usually the case, the movie works better because of the monster staying out of sight. In fact, if anything it probably should have stayed in the shadows more; the brief times we see the entirety of it (and there are posters showing it) it just looks like a guy in a trench coat who ate too much black licorice. So all the more reason to come up with a bunch of ways to keep it in the shadows, the best of which being a story books filled with black and white images, which is well built up from genuinely kind of cute to creepy, then later comes back even worse (though when it comes back you may find yourself wondering if it moves on its own or the mother is bothering to pull its tabs while she freaks out). The other methods they use are all pretty effective. None are really as unique as the book, but the movie deserves some props for having this thing call them on the phone and making it not come off as stupid. All in all, it delivers a good amount of scary scenes, and builds good tension, especially during one scene when the monster gets very close to the mother, and all she can really do is just get under the covers and hope she's imagining things.

If there's anything particularly...off in the movie it's the ending.
WARNING: "Ending spoilers" spoilers below
The creature that was shown to have a ton of powerful abilities, able to either alter reality or make people hallucinate so strongly they can hug their hallucinations, able to either turn invisible or move things with no contact, able to go anywhere it wants, able to possess people, able to make the house break, is defeated by the mother screaming at it. In fact, the thing runs/flies into the basement, screaming. A good show of motherly love, to be sure, but not very good logically. If the Babadook is supposed to just be a gigantic wuss then fine, but foreshadowing would be nice and giving your monster a personality instead of making it just some vague force of nature or mindless killing machine opens up some questions, such as "Why is it doing this crud?".

Of course if anything in the movie is hard to swallow you can just take it as an allegory for grief and anxiety, or as a story of a woman and her kid going completely insane and imagining a monster running around the house. Other people do. In fact it probably makes more sense that way.

The movie seems specifically engineered to leave you paranoid after viewing (is that noise outside the door the Babadook!?), but doesn't leave enough of an impression for that. But while it's playing it gives you some good scary scenes, and a good story line unfolding around those scenes.