Writer/director Jennifer Kent’s feature debut The Babadook is receiving near unanimous praise, but while it does show signs of confidence and above average acting for a horror film, that might set it apart from its contemporaries, it ultimately never quite manages to do justice to the genre it still very much wants to be a part of.
The Babadook is about a single mother named Amelia troubled by both the violent death of her husband years ago and the current hyperactivity of her child, and who begins to experience hallucinations of a mysterious and evil character from a strange children’s book called “Mister Babadook” that one day appears in her house. Guilt, repression, sadness, alienation, you name it and Amelia experiences it on a daily basis. Problematic for the film, though, is the way the occasionally grueling second act is structured in starts and stops. Kent telegraphs her subtext in the opening scenes, with the film’s style and rhythm borrowing from an odd mixture of Tim Burton and the Coen brothers, so that all we have to carry us through the middle hour is the repetition of the same anguish felt by Amelia, accompanied by the forced escalation of more and more prominent Babadook sightings which seem to appear at the director’s whim. The result for me makes the film almost comedic in tone, certainly not terrifying in the least. For example, Simon Njoo’s rapid editing of a typical scene will involve the exaggerated compression of time that just draws attention to the events in the narrative as huge intrusions in Amelia’s life, such as seeing two people talking and hearing a door bell and immediately cutting to the door opening and revealing a grinning character who is not going to make her life any easier, or there will be an extended beat when interacting with others to suggest just how alone she is. Kent plays her hand too soon, leaving nowhere to go but towards absurdity, which is probably why a pivotal scene where Amelia answers the telephone to hear an obnoxiously creepy scratchy voice saying “ba…ba…dook…dook…dook” had me howling with laughter instead of completely unglued. I can only empathize so much with Amelia until I start to see her with the same expressions of patronizing terror that her son Sam shoots her (a terrific Noah Wiseman, who has a great career ahead of him).
Many films, especially indies, succumb during their second acts, and for all its pretensions The Babadook is no different. There are some great qualities to it that make it worth watching, but it is too bogged-down by its thematic weight to actually become a horror film when it needs to become a horror film, and because of that it feels at times like a short that has been stretched out to feature length.
The Verdict: Rave