The Babadook Review: When Locking Your Doors Isn’t Enough

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The Babadook is a traditional ghost story on the surface, not much different from the crap that gets churned out by studios on noncompetitive box office weekends. But when the story carefully threads the needle of a psychological thriller, things get more interesting.

You’ve heard the setup before. Amelia (Essie Davis), a widowed single mother, and her son Samuel (Noah Wisemen) lead as normal a life as they can. Samuel has some issues at school and Amelia can’t seem to get to sleep. When a creepy children’s book shows up on Samuel’s shelf, promising that you can’t get rid of its titular Babadook, the family’s life is turned upside down by either the paranormal or the psychological.

Director Jennifer Kent marks her debut film with genuine terror. There are no cheap scares in The Babadook; every jump, not to mention assuming the fetal position, feels earned. The cinematography either lets you stare into an empty background, waiting for something to crawl in, or whips around corners, begging for something to be standing there waiting. Mix that with proven effective horror tricks in lighting and sound and you’ve got a film that knows how to scare you and does so often.

That’s better than a lot of other horror films out this year can boast. But this film does the psychological aspects incredibly well. Both Davis and Wisemen own their roles, drawing both sympathy and terror at all the right moments.

That said, when you blend the supernatural with the psychological, picking which one the ending ends up being can be difficult. The Babadook is edited in a way that anything could really be a dream. That is, until the third act. Things then get a bit more traditional. It’s fine that the film wanted to have its resolution, but I wish it had done so with more of its ambiguity intact. Lots of horror films struggle to make their ending simultaneously satisfying and horrifying (The Shining, conversely, rewards its heroes without sacrificing its creep factor by including the final shot of Jack in the old photo). The Babadook comes close, but ultimately doesn’t quite stick the landing.

Still, I was scared silly throughout a lot of its 94 minute runtime. We’re in an age of cinema where true terror is difficult to find. Regardless of how satisfying they are, films that achieve this deserve recognition. I am confident in labeling The Babadook as the best horror film of 2014, a title it deserves by making sure I never want to watch it again. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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