The Babadook is one of the best horror movies we've seen in years, with a clever structure and a strong focus on character. But this movie will also put you through the wringer. Emotionally, psychologically. You'll be thinking about it for days, but you may not want to see this masterpiece twice.
Very minor spoilers ahead...
In The Babadook, Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother — ever since her husband Oscar died in a car accident, driving her to the hospital to give birth to their son. Now Samuel is in kindergarten, and is turning into a problem child, who acts out in his desire to protect people from imaginary monsters. But things take a more sinister turn when Amelia reads to her son from a strange picture book he found, about a horrifying monster called the Babadook.
From there, the story unfolds in some ways that will be familiar to seasoned horror-movie audiences... but there are also some big surprises. The Babadook, like many "imaginary" monsters, starts out subtle in its manifestations and slowly gets bolder and more visible — but the meaning of the Babadook as a monster keeps shifting too.
The best word I can come up with to describe The Babadook is "unflinching." The portrait of a woman who's fraying at the edges, struggling with unresolved trauma over her husband's death, and unable to sleep because of her kid's nightmares. The scenes of Amelia squirming under the judgment of her sister's fancy friends, dealing with well-meaning coworkers and getting called into school after Samuel's latest outburst, are just gut-wrenching. The sense of being trapped in a situation with no easy escape route and no real hope in sight is crushing after a while.
You can see why this movie was so popular at Sundance — on one level, it's a small domestic film about a messed-up family, and you could remove the horror element and still have a powerful, jarring film. It's just that the horror element, which is full-on terrifying and insane by the end of the movie, adds a whole extra dimension to the character-based story.
Writer/director Jennifer Kent has a way of lingering on small monstrous details in Amelia's house, and also of drawing your eye to darkness at the very edge of the frame, while Amelia's face is washed out and drained of life. Some of the disturbing closeups of household objects reminded me a bit of Annabelle, another recent movie that tried to make the domestic monstrous and terrifying — but The Babadook works better, because it has a much stronger focus on character and a central metaphor that's both clearer and way more complex.
At first, the Babadook seems to be the classic "monster under the bed" that children are scared of — and Samuel both wants to protect his mother from it and get protection from it. But the Babadook is also a family secret, something they can't discuss with other people (who already think Samuel is a terror and his mom is a bad mother.) Over the course of the film, the Babadook comes to feel more like the hidden rot at the heart of this small family, the untreated festering wound in the mother-son relationship.
And without going into any detail, there's a sharp change in the dynamics of the film, which turns everything on its head and reverses how you view Amelia and her son, at almost exactly the halfway point of the movie. It feels totally logical and earned, but it also changes how you view the main characters as well as the Babadook.
If monster movies, and horror films generally, are actually just metaphors for real-life stuff, then this is an unusually rich seam.
The wonderful thing about The Babadook is that it made me squirm for most of its running length — it's downright depressing in some places, and just miserable in others — but the ending absolutely pays off. Again, no real spoilers, but there's a powerful ending that makes you feel like the whole thing has been worthwhile, and even enriching. Halfway through the film, I wasn't sure if I could recommend it to people who don't want to be raked over the coals emotionally — but then the final minutes left me feeling like this was a genuinely transformative film that pulls off a much better trick than just conjuring a monster.
And yes, it's a really, really scary, inventive horror film, as well. After seeing a slew of horror movies that resort to just gross-outs and jump scares, this is a film that honestly goes about wrecking your nerves. Highly recommended.