The Babadook Review

The Babadook is a 2014 horror film written and directed by Jennifer Kent. The film was a huge sensation among film nerds when it premiered, being touted as possible the best horror film of the past decade.

Story
Amelia (Essie Davis) is doing her best to look after her young son (Noah Wiseman) in the face of a great personal tragedy. One night, she reads him a book called "Mister Babadook", which tells the tale of a monster that will never leave your house if you let him in. From that point on, Amelia begins having strange, disturbing visions as she holds on to what's left of her sanity.

While the setup on the surface isn't very original in that it's basically just another haunted house movie, it's the execution that makes all the difference in the world. This film really understands what makes great horror; it's not just that it scares you or unnerves you. Horror comes from theme and tone. The tone of the film is unforgiving, with harsh inconveniences like a soup bowl full of sharp glass (which actually does happen in the movie) adding to the "Can't life just cut these people a break?" tone that the film sets up. The themes are equally as dark, with the film exploring grief, loss and even domestic unrest by using the Babadook monster. This is the kind of thing that horror was made for and yet for some reason never does: analyzing the darkest parts of the human condition with the scariest scenarios possible.

The characters of Amelia and her son Sam have an interesting dynamic throughout the film. It starts out with the audience being on the mother's side, since she's trying to handle an extremely difficult child while also balancing a job and her own personal tragedy. We find the kid just as annoying as she does and just want life to give her a break. However, without spoiling anything, the film has a great way of slowly turning the tables on you, to the point where you're rooting for the kid and against the mother. No, I'm not gonna tell you how that happens. Watch the movie.

The screenplay is actually pretty good for the most part, utilizing visual storytelling and subtle dialogue to allow the audience to piece together Amelia's tragic backstory. That would've been fantastic if not for a single line of dialogue that tells you precisely what happened. I'm convinced that if you took out this one line it would've made the entire movie a hundred times better. It would've allowed the audience to engage in the story and therefore be more drawn in and invested. It just goes to show how a film can be lessened in quality by the smallest of mistakes.

Technical
I as I said before, what makes a horror movie really work is tone and it's up to everybody behind the camera to make sure that the tone is well built or else the entire thing falls apart.

The set design is what really jumps out at me when I think of the technical side of the movie. Literally everything in the film is shades of white, grey or black. It creates this gothic atmosphere, like those old horror movies set in an old abandoned mansion. The colors of the sets also help emphasize the feeling of death, as if the absence of life has literally sucked the color out of Amelia's life.

The sets are helped immensely by the lighting. Every shot is lit in either dark grey or hard white light. This not only helps cement the gothic atmosphere, but it helps emphasize the flaws in the literal framework. Every crack and crease on the walls, every bump and wrinkle in human skin are all called into sharp focus by the sharp shadows they cast. It once again adds to the gothic, haunted mansion atmosphere, making everything look older and more broken down.

The sound design is also a huge standout. Some of the biggest frights of the movie come strictly from the sounds you hear. Disembodied voices, creaks of footsteps on wood in the dead of night and the noises the monster makes are chillingly effective.

What works most of all about the film, though, is the way they handle Mister Babadook; we rarely ever see him. You never see his face outside of subliminal flashes that are there and gone faster than you can blink, he's constantly left in shadow and just the outline of his figure is enough to frighten you.

The actors are really good. Essie Davis gives an astonishing performance, going through a wide variety of emotions from stress, depression, relief and paralyzing fear without missing a beat. I'm not sure I'd go so far as other critics and say it's Oscar worthy, but it's still fantastic. The kid is mostly pretty good, giving a really emotional, convincing performance. Sometimes his voice can get a bit flat, but that's a rare occurrence.

Summary: The Babadook is the most pants-crapping experience I've had with a horror film since I don't know when. It's incredibly intense, engagingly atmospheric and has finally bought my respect back for the horror genre. If you're not into horror, you won't enjoy it. However, if you've been looking for the next really smart, really scary horror movie you've come to the right place.

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