The Babadook is not really a monster film. There is a monster in The Babadook, but it’s not really a monster film. For that reason alone, The Babadook has been incredibly successful, and also totally hated. Why is that?
The Babadook was written and directed by Jennifer Kent (in her directorial debut) and tells the story of a troubled widow, Amelia, who is struggling to raise her erratic son, Sam. Sam rarely sleeps and spends his time building weapons to fight off an imaginary monster. One night, in hopes of putting him to sleep, Amelia reads Sam a bedtime story entitled “Mister Babadook.” The story describes a monster, known as The Babadook, who torments its victims after they become aware of him. Sam is convinced that the monster exists and that it wants to harm him and his mother. What follows is a descent into madness, a la The Shining.
Let’s start with why the movie works.
First of all, Jennifer Kent. The fact that this is her first film is mind-blowing. Her direction is tight, focusing on the characters and successfully building a bleak, hopeless atmosphere without resorting to jump scares. It’s a nice change of pace when compared to the generic mainstream horror that we so often get. But a character driven film of any kind (not just horror) depends strongly on the performances, and in this case, the performances are brilliant, particularly Essie Davis. Davis stars as Amelia, and she is a revelation. Amelia is troubled, struggling with grief and depression throughout the movie, and the actress wears that agony in a way that breaks your heart. Throughout the film, you can see the character losing control of her mind, and Essie Davis is the sole reason as to why that works. Once Amelia gives in to her demons, Davis’s performance shifts from heartbreaking and relatable to utterly terrifying, and that works just as well.
With so many complaints about remakes and the lack of originality in the horror genre, you’d think that a movie with so much going for it would be welcomed with open arms. There really is no right or wrong answer for this question, though, as The Babadook is as divisive as they come. Never have I seen a movie be so admired and highly regarded by one person, and then be bashed by the next the way that The Babadook has been since its release. For every one person that considers it a masterpiece, myself included, there is another person that feels completely opposite.
Why is that? Anyone that I’ve asked has said one of two things, one being that the little boy is annoying. Well, yeah. He’s kind of supposed to be hard to put up with. I couldn’t possibly accept that as an answer when someone tells me that the movie sucks. One aspect of a film does not justify labeling the entire film as “bad.” There is another common answer though, and while I don’t agree that the movie sucks or that it’s bad in even one single way, I can see why this complaint would turn people off:
It’s because The Babadook isn’t really a monster movie.
If, like me, you saw this trailer, there is no doubt that you were expecting The Babadook to be a straightforward monster flick. You may have been surprised, for better or worse, to find that this film is something different entirely. It’s a character drama. It’s psychological horror. It’s a slow-burning trip through the mind of a mother at her ropes end. It’s a cautionary tale about dealing with your grief and allowing yourself to feel the pain of whatever situation you’re in. Yes, there’s a monster in The Babadook, but it’s really just a metaphor for the monster that mental illness can become if not properly treated. It’s brilliant, but it’s also not what everyone signed up for.
The Babadook isn’t watered down. It isn’t aiming to please its audience with cheap scares and simple answers. The movie trusts its audience to keep up and to figure things out on their own without being spoon-fed. For some, it is a masterpiece that works unlike any horror movie in recent memory. For others, it’s mismarketed rubbish that makes no sense and features an annoying little kid. Regardless whether you view it as a masterpiece or as a shit-pile, you have to admit, it’s got people talking. That’s a success within itself.