Zack Clopton’s review published on Letterboxd:
Every year, I endeavor to see a newly released horror movie, preferably in the theaters. Because, while Halloween is about revisiting old favorites, it should be about new discoveries too. Of course, I did see a new horror movie in the theater this season, “Dracula Untold.” But that barely counts. I had other options, like fucking “Ouija,” ugh. The horror movie I really wanted to see, though, was “The Babadook,” a new Australian film that had been getting rave reviews and had a scary as hell trailer. When I saw “The Babadook” crop up as a new release On-Demand…. Well, it’s not the theaters but it’ll do.
The film follows Amelia and her son Samuel. Samuel’s father died in a car crash, while Amelia was in labor, on the way to the hospital. Samuel’s birthday is never celebrated on the actually day since it reminds Amelia of her husband’s death. Amelia is very stressed out and Samuel, an eccentric child obsessed with magic, monsters and cobbling together his own inventions, is difficult to live with. One night before bed, Samuel pulls out a book Amelia has never seen before. A sinister pop-up book, it tells of a figure named the Babadook, a boogeyman who appears in your home, if you let him in. Then he’ll enter you, make you kill your pets, make you kill your kid, and then he’ll kill you. Once the Babadook finds you, there’s no way to get rid of him. The monster is real, comes knocking at their door, and Amelia and Samuel go mad.
I’m not going to beat around the bush. “The Babadook” is terrifying. Director Jennifer Kent has a perfect grasp on tone, sound design, and execution. “The Babadook” begins with a persistent tone of creeping dread. The film captures the tone of sleepless, exhausted stress that is familiar to new parents. This is the state Amelia lives in. When the Babadook book is found, things get even darker. From the moment the pages are flipped, the inescapable sense that things are going to get much worst begin.
There are so many stand-out moments in “The Babadook,” many of them operating on a different type of horror. When Amelia looks up quickly, catching a glimpse of the Babadook before looking again and seeing it gone, that’s the horror of loosing your mind. Anyone with any experiences with insomnia knows that one. When Amelia stares at the TV, hoping for sleep that won’t come, and see the Babadook appearing on-screen, that’s surreal horror. Finally, when she’s driving the car and nearly crashes it because the boogeyman is there, that’s go-for-the-throat horror. The entire last hour of “The Babadook” operates in this mood, the dread having built to a fever pitch. The film pulls out every trick in the book to create a terrifying final act. Characters are tossed across rooms, slid on their feet, scream in distorted voices, the camera moving at odd angles, and the sound design ramps up. Normally, this would be pandering but “The Babadook” pulls it off. You’ll be sitting in your chair, jittering nervously during the entire last half-hour of the film.
Many factors make “The Babadook” so fantastically effective but two in particular stand out. The first is the performance of Essie Davis. Amelia is in a very unpleasant mood, constantly. Davis is not afraid to play a character that is perpetually stressed, exhausted, and terrified. She commits fully to the part, creating an incredibly nuanced and brave performance. Noah Wiseman as Samuel is also incredible. Wiseman has to play a kid that is both annoying and sympathetic in equal measure. When Amelia is controlled by the Babadook, and trying to kill her own son, you have to believe that she is frustrated enough to do so. Similarly, when her son ties her down, forcing the monster out, you have to believe that his love is true enough to do so. Wiseman succeeds. Together, the two make the central characters of “The Babadook” intensely worth caring about.
The second major factor in the film’s favor is the incredible production and sound design. “The Babadook” is dark. Every room is grey and drab. This is how someone who is exhausted, all the time, sees things. The house “The Babadook” is set in seems huge and ominous, the grey walls stretching on forever. It seems like a huge tomb. At the end of Amelia and Samuel’s bedrooms are looming wardrobes. These are like coffins. Ominous symbols are around every corner. The shadows and corners provide plenty of hiding places for the Babadook.
The titular villain is an impressive creation too. There’s no shortage of pop culture villains in long coats and funny hats. Even the Babadook, with its towering top hat and draping coat, is nothing new. However, the film makes it work. The hands are topped with long fingers, topped with curling nails, perfect for reaching out and grabbing people. When we see its face, which isn’t often, the eyes are always starring, always watching. It’s mouth, meanwhile, is always open wide and full of teeth… Perfect for eating little kids and scared mothers. In short, the Babadook is an ideal cinematic boogeyman.
Great horror movies are never just about what they’re about though. “The Babadook,” at first, appears to be a film about how being a parent can be fucking terrible. When you have a kid, you never get much sleep, you’re always high-strung and worried, being pulled in many directions all at once. Is it any wonder some mothers kill their children? They take over your life.
“The Babadook” is about this, of course, but a more important purpose reveals itself. In time, the Babadook appears to Amelia as her dead husband, promising her that they can be together again if she brings him the boy. The Babadook becomes a symbol of trauma. Once he finds you, you can never get rid of him. Even after Amelia stands up to the monster, he doesn’t go away. Trauma, whether it be from the death of a love one, the end of a meaningful relationship, or any other horrible thing, never truly goes away. Instead, you learn to live with it. You learn from it. The ending of “The Babadook” is incredibly cathartic and well-earned.
It’s always presumptions to say these things, especially when there’s a lot left that I haven’t seen. Right now, however, I’m willing to say this: “The Babadook” is the best horror film of 2014. It is the scariest film I have seen in many years, blowing away previous candidates like “[REC]” or “The Strangers.” Jennifer Kent is a talent to watch and I look forward to what she’ll come up with next. In time, the film will likely join the great horror films of cinematic history. What a way to wrap up October.