The Babadook is a bold original horror that scares rather than startles – every moment carrying the unease of a dark underlying reality.
Amelia is struggling to cope with her manic son Sam on the run up to his seventh birthday – a date that also marks the death of his father. Sam’s disruptive behaviour swings wildly out of hand when he discovers a pop-up book that warns of an unstoppable monster in a ‘funny disguise’: Mister Babadook.
The book, a grim (with one ‘m’) fairy-tale, is beautifully crafted and a great centrepiece to the film. It comes to life not only through its eponymous character but in the production design, with hidden faces in the décor of each scene. The saturated blue, black and grey against white create a similar palette to the book and at times embodies The Cabinet of Dr Caligari – but Mister Babdook is no somnambulist, rather an expressionist inversion of the Spirit of Jazz, dressed in a top-hap hat and cloak.
This character is actually not so frightening outside of the book. Once he takes physical form and steps out of the shadows, he is just another bogeyman – drained of his symbolic potency. This is surprising though considering the chilling monster of the short on which this film is based. Even so, it is what Mister Babadook stands for that is so deeply disturbing.
Whilst the big studios remake classic horrors (Don’t Look Now! First Wicker Man now this…), and the new semi-independent horrors insist on reminding us how scary children are, especially when they suddenly appear with an orchestral crash,The Babadook flips the idea on its head. It explores much darker territory. It explores a very real horror but through this phantasmal figure.
The film is far from subtle. It lays out the direction of the story early on through the storybook, unpacking all of the symbolism and explaining away the subtext through exposition and sometimes unnecessary scenes. All of this it does in the first act and yet the idea is so haunting that it keeps you in locked suspense. It remains scary even when you know what’s coming – because you know what’s coming. This feeling doesn’t quite survive a second viewing but it remains impressive as an original.
The Babadook gets under the skin and unsettles – truly a scary film with a great concept.