The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014)
Young widow Amelia (a very fine Essie Davis, known in her native Australia for “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries“), whose husband died in a car accident years ago, is at her wit’s end caring for her troubled son, Samuel. Prone to violent rages, and obsessed with weapons, Samuel means well, but misbehaves in school one time too many, and is expelled. Amelia’s sister is no help; she can’t stand the boy, especially after he pushes her own daughter out of a tree house. So Amelia is left to fend for herself, caring for the little dear while trying to hold down her job at a nursing home. Every night, before she can get some much-needed rest, she must read to Samuel from a book of his own choosing. One night, he picks a book she’s never seen before, about a frightening wraith-like home invader called “Mr. Babadook” (whatever you do, don’t invite him in!). It’s terrifying; completely inappropriate for a boy Samuel’s age. Where did it come from? Soon, that question is replaced by a more urgent one: why are the gruesome details of the book coming to life?
I wish I felt about this Australian indie the way the vast super-majority of critics do. Most find it a perfect parable about the challenges of motherhood, and I can see that. Unfortunately, while there is much to recommend here – first-time feature director Jennifer Kent is brilliant at creating an eerie vibe through camera placement, lighting and sound design – the script, for me, breaks down in the second half of the film, once we actually meet the monster (when the low budget really shows, since the CGI does not cut it). I also found myself less creeped out than angry that such horrible things were happening to a woman who began the film already at her nadir. True, there is always further you can fall, but I spent too much time annoyed at the film’s cruelty to its protagonist to fully enjoy the horror of the story (granted, horror is not my favorite genre, anyway). Still, I will long be haunted by the work of the Production Designer Alex Holmes, who has created one of the scariest children’s books I have ever seen. So, flawed as it is, I give it a qualified recommendation for the art direction and cinematography (by Radek Ladczuk), alone.