How do you review a horror film that has excellently creepy buildup, but you’re just not feeling the ending? That was the question posed to me as the credits of “The Babadook” rolled. The be fair, it’s not a new dilemma- so many horror movies have awesome first halves and just kind of fall apart in the finale, but I felt the pain of this missed opportunity more keenly because the first portion of the movie was so damn good, a slitheringly sinister maternal nightmare topped by a great performance by Essie Davis.
Davis plays Amelia, a browbeaten widow and mother of a severely emotionally damaged six-year-old boy, Samuel (Noah Wiseman, who valiantly manages to mostly live up to the script’s demanding expectations.) Amelia works at a rest home and lives a decidedly stressful working-class existence. She cannot pretend that her son doesn’t add significantly to her multitude of worries, but she loves him with the fierce love of a mother who does all she can to raise her son . She is sexually frustrated. She looks perpetually bedraggled.
Amelia is romanced by a co-worker (Daniel Henshall), but she’s afraid to let him in, and when he comes by the house with flowers the kid scares him away. Samuel is expelled from school when he brings a homemade weapon, but things get really bad with mysterious arrival of a seriously disturbing children’s’ book The Babadook, which Amelia ill-advisedly reads to her so without really knowing what it’s about. Samuel and his mother are quickly taken over by dark forces, and under the Babadook’s watchful eyes Amelia starts making a horrifying transformation from supermom to mommie dearest.
The buildup in this film is exceptional- the dark palate and use of eerie editing and imagery propel the movie past typical horror fare, as well as the excellent character development. Amelia is not a perfect woman or mother, but she is an admirable one. Although she has never gotten over the death of her beloved husband, she raises Samuel as best she can in a increasingly forboding environment. Samuel puts you in a position somewhere between ‘wanna tell him it’s all going to be all right, even if it isn’t’ and ‘wanna strangle him,’ and Noah Wiseman plays on this balance effectively. You sorta want to hug him, you sorta want to hit him- in other words, he’s more of a typical child than you might think.
However, the scenes where the possessed Amelia chases Samuel around the house as he tries to fight her with his homemade crossbow are slapsticky enough to put the viewer in mind of a particularly dark “Home Alone.” (Admittedly, “Home Alone” was dark to begin with, but it got nothing on this.) Yes, folks- it seems that when the film hits it’s crescendo, all subtlety goes out the window. Which it a frickin’ shame, because the film up to then is outstanding. The ending doesn’t really work, but after a sub-par supernatural showdown that isn’t really a big surprise.
Overall, “The Babadook” doesn’t work as well as it should but is still helluva a lot better than standard horror fare. The actors excel in their roles, the sense of fear is palpable but things get a little silly in the last twenty minutes, and isn’t that a shame. I still think the film is worth a watch for horror fans. It’s not half bad, but I guess after all the hype, I just set my expectations too high.