I’m finding it hard not to be cynical about this movie, because although it is good, and very good for a first feature, it is nowhere near as good as you have been hearing it is. And I’m not sure the psychology and metaphors hold up all that well. And I feel like the ending was a bit of a letdown. But that can overshadow the good things about it, like the excellent performances, nice look and excellent sound design. I just think that critics who normally dismiss horror outright feel like they’re pretty "with it" when they are able to spot influences and subtext in a horror film… when they are RIGHT THERE on the surface, as they are here. You see why it makes me cynical.
We open with mom Amelia dreaming about a car accident with her husband then waking in bed. We soon find there is no dad, so we have to assume he bought it in the accident. Her son, Samuel, is a holy terror of low impulse control and low attention span, always screaming for mom to pay attention to whatever he does on the playground. He repeatedly shouts “I’ll slay the monster,” and is constantly terrified of a monster in his room, requiring exhaustive searches before bed and usually his coming into mom’s bed before night is over, where he keeps her awake by clutching at her and fidgeting.
Samuel is quite adept at making weapons to defend himself against this monster, which he creates down in the basement, where dead dad’s stuff is stored. He apparently feels threatened at school, and gets expelled after bringing a crossbow that shoots darts. He screams in blind, aimless rage on the ride home, where mom says not a cross word to him, but offers to get him ice cream. Sam blurts to anyone who will listen that his father was killed while taking his mother to the hospital in order to give birth to him.
One day Sam picks a book off the shelf called The Babadook. It’s a bit Edward Gorey for their taste, about a monster that comes knocking and will come to get you and once you let it in, you can’t get rid of it. The book and illustrations are good and scary. Sam is freaked and has to sleep with her that night, and the next night interrupts her while she tries to have a bit of private pleasure of the vibratory kind. The next day mom is longingly looking at happy romantic couples in the park. Soon, she hears a rumbling and the three big knocks that announce that the babadook has come. Mom answers the door, apparently letting him in.
From there, things get worse. Mom finds bits of broken glass in her soup. Sam says the babadook did it. Sam tells his aunt’s girl about the babadook, making her all terrified, and soon is pushing her out of a treehouse. Mom is gradually starting to crack up, but she barely ever says a cross word to Sam, and never disciplines him in any way. When he pushes the girl out of the treehouse, Mom still daren't say a harsh word to the poor child! And believe me if there was ever a kid that deserved a time out… after a good beating… this is that kid. Maybe mom wouldn't be having such problems if she'd ever read a parenting handbook.
Mom burns the babadook book, and soon find a revised second edition back on her doorstep, saying “the more you deny him, the stronger he gets.” This version also shows a woman—i.e. her—killing the family dog, then her son, then herself. By the way, from the very beginning you’ll have noticed lots of images of pulling the covers over one’s eyes. Anyway, mom finally gets a personal visit from the babadook, which crawls along the ceiling and drops into her mouth, which I think pretty much anyone knows is movie shorthand for possessing her.
SPOILERS > > >
Well, now mom starts being in a really bad mood. She doesn’t make dinner for Sam, and when he says he’s hungry, she tells him to eat shit. She loses her job. She’s not very nice to the sweet old lady next door. Sam starts to be afraid of her. She sees her husband in the basement, and he tells her to “bring me the boy.” The Babadook “mounts” her, and we see her eye’s iris expand, which I take to mean that she’s growing even more possessed. Soon, the dog gets it, and you remember that Sam is next on the list.
Soon enough, mom is coming after Sam with a large butcher knife, but he clasps her and tells her he loves her. Mom pukes up a bunch of black stuff, which we know is the babadook. When it comes at her again, she grabs Sam and screams at it, finally driving it back and it goes into the basement. As a sort of epilogue, mom goes down into the basement and feeds the babadook, which comes out and screams at her, then takes its food and retreats. She goes back upstairs, and it’s clear that she’s in a much better place and she and Sam are getting along and all is peaceful. Phhht.
So we have to talk about the end of this movie in the spoilers. So my take is that there is no actual babadook, that it’s the manifestation of mom’s anger at her son, and her unconscious blaming him for the death of her husband. Remember that her husband was killed on the way to the child’s birth, so she did literally exchange one for the other, and the brat’s behavior continually reminds her which one she’d rather have. Now, you remember that “the more you deny him, the stronger he gets,” and that “you can’t get rid of the babadook,” so in the end, she is able to get control of him, and keep him in the literal basement, and the metaphorical lower depths of her consciousness. Thing is that now, instead of denying the babadook/her negative feelings, she acknowledges them and keeps them under control, which allows her to get on with her life.
< < < SPOILERS END
So that’s all pretty airtight, but if the babadook is all in mom’s mind… well, it’s not in her mind, it is also in Sam’s. In fact, it’s in Sam’s before it’s in hers, as he is terrified of monsters before the book of the babadook even shows up. Then they both see the book, so this must be a shared delusion of theirs (or mom made it unconsciously and placed it there). I had forgotten that mom writes children’s books aside from her job as a nurse, and we do see gray stains on her fingers. The second edition comes after she sees the news story of the mother who killed her children, so possibly that put that scenario in her mind as a possibility for herself.
So, the movie had excellent performances, and excellent sound design. My problems with it are that I think it’s all a bit obvious. My friend thinks you have to wonder for a while if the monster is real, but it seemed all psychological from the start, and nothing ever made me question that the babadook was not real. And if you think that from the start, it all just keeps clicking into place, rather than being surprising or opening up new possibilities, and then the ending was just a bit anticlimactic and verging on banal. Things like the babadook going into mom’s mouth and then her being possessed… it’s the kind of thing we’ve been seeing since at least Poltergeist II, right? And surely even before that.
But being obvious is not necessarily enough to sink a horror film, as plenty of others also are. The big problem is that… it’s just not scary. At most, the babadook creeps out and is a bit spooky, but it doesn’t really seem that dangerous, and ultimately nobody gets it but the pooch. I would have been happy to see the next door neighbor go, or even better, mom’s sister or her daughter. Imagine how hairy things would have gotten if mom’s niece had bought it, and mom and Sam were really brought into a complicity of pitch black secrets and lies about what really happened? Now that would be interesting. Kind of what we have here is a very original Lifetime movie about a woman’s grief and how hard it is to raise a problem child as a single mother. It’s a movie about a woman’s darkest impulses that is afraid to really let the blackness out, ending up a little bland and reassuring.
Just know that it's not as good as you're hearing it is.