Horror films generally have a bad reputation in cinematic criticism, and at least since the turn of the millennium (if not earlier) there has been a certain amount of justification for that. Whether lazily rebooting old franchises with no attempted care or relying entirely on jump scares and orchestral accompaniment to provide the illusion of tension, horror films are usually the most cheaply produced and among the most profitable. So lo and behold, when a horror film takes home near-universal critical praise, I will sit up and take notice. That film is The Babadook, and despite its silly-sounding title, it is quite possibly the best horror film to come out in over a decade.
Our two main characters are Amelia and Samuel, a mother and son on the cusp of the son’s seventh birthday. Samuel has severe behavioral problems, an unhealthy obsession with monsters, and a fear of abandonment due to the premature death of his father. Amelia also struggles with the death of her dead husband, who died in a car crash on the way to the hospital while Amelia was in labor with Samuel. As Amelia begins to reach her wit’s end with her son, she reads him a children’s book called “The Babadook.” Upon discovering violent and disturbing imagery in the book, she immediately stashes the book away, as it only makes Samuel outbursts even worse. However, something was unleashed when she read the book, and the Babadook haunts them from the shadows of their own home.
Now, the Babadook itself is a masterfully created amalgamation of practical effects, often lurking in the shadows so that we can only catch glimpses of its eerily long fingers, frazzled hair, and signature top hat. However, the film cleverly realizes that the key to horror is in what we don’t see, so often the film will rely on sound and limited perspective to provide a sense of foreboding. Once a monster is exposed too much to the eye, it ceases to be scary, and this film expertly replicates the sensation of childhood glimpses of the boogeyman lurking around every corner.
The Babadook’s true strength, however, lies in the monster’s representational qualities rather than its literal monstrosities. To claim the film is built around subtext is to do disservice to the term subtlety, as the Babadook’s metaphorical depiction of Amelia’s growing mental instability is nailed home with the force of a sledgehammer. But that does not disserve the film in the slightest; horror is, above all else, about primal emotions, and by forging such a strong attachment to Amelia and Samuel through a slow and methodical build-up to the terrifying third act, The Babadook translates a family on the verge of collapse into a fantastic psychological roller coaster.
To praise The Babadook for being a horror film that does more than scare through the most transparent of mechanisms would not do the film’s achievements justice. The bar is set low for modern horror movies, but The Babadook shines as a standard that horror hasn’t realized in decades. I can only hope that other filmmakers take heed of what this film does so well and can rejuvenate an artistically bereft genre.
Disagree with me that horror hasn’t succeeded in over a decade? Can you name some examples to rebut me? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.