In this new, monthly series, a Wicked Horror writer presents an unpopular opinion about a particular genre offering and asks the oft-repeated question, “Is it just me?” In this installment, Joey Keogh argues why The Babadook does not live up to the hype and should not be held up as some sort of benchmark to which all future genre flicks are judged, but rather taken for exactly what it is: a family drama with a spook who turns up about four times total.

Australian director Jennifer Kent’s indie debut The Babadook perhaps the most talked about and well-received horror release of 2014. Topping the majority of Best Of lists come year end, legendary critic and lifelong horror fan Mark Kermode even went as far as making it his #1 pick across all genres (to put that into perspective, he considered it better than Boyhood, Gone Girl, Interstellar and a host of other incredible movies). The Babadook was, by all accounts, the little indie that could, managing to Kickstart itself into production and subsequently eclipsing the attention give to mainstream, big budget offerings like Annabelle and The Guest along with other independent fare such as Cheap Thrills and Blue Ruin. To top it all William Friedkin, the man behind The Exorcist (AKA one of the scariest movies of all time) described it, in an interview with The Guardian, as the most frightening film he’d ever seen.

The film had its detractors, of course, but they were few and far between, not to mention noticeably quiet. When you mention The Babadook, in casual conversation or otherwise, the usual response is for people (both horror and non-horror fans) to coo over it, or regale you with stories about how it stopped them sleeping for weeks. Horror filmmaker Joe Lynch explained on the year-end episode of his podcast The Movie Crypt that The Babadook was  “overhyped” and did nothing for him because it couldn’t possibly live up to its own expectations. But even this isn’t necessarily a negative review. If anything, Lynch is giving the film a pass for disappointing him because of the buzz surrounding it. Given that Australia is typically known, at least when it comes to modern horror, for gory torture porn oddities such as Wolf Creek, or The Loved Ones, perhaps audiences were just thrilled to finally be given the chance to enjoy a slow-burn, psychological thriller from the land down under. But is that really what it is?

jennifer kent, the babadook.The film’s Kickstarter page describes The Babadook as: “a psychological horror about a single mother who becomes possessed by a monster that wills her to kill her 6-year-old son. In the tradition of Polanski’s classic domestic horrors (Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant, Repulsion), The Babadook has a distinctly bizarre and surreal edge”. I first caught it at Frightfest 2014, almost six months before the theatrical release. The trailer was a spooky, spine-tingling shocker loaded with intrigue and suggestion about the horrors contained within, and I was stoked to finally get a chance to spend ninety minutes in the company of Mister Babadook. The flick played on the final, late-night slot of the second day and, after it’d finished and I found myself not just underwhelmed but disappointed by what I’d seen, I first blamed the timing. Late-night slots should be reserved for films like Wolfcop, Zombeavers or Stage Fright (all of which occupied one on the other nights of the festival, to a rapturous reception) that are fun, silly, and maybe even a little schlocky.

Upon re-watch, however, I didn’t just find The Babadook dull and uninspiring, I actively disliked it. First off, it’s not scary, atmospheric or tense, it’s a repetitive, depressing slog and there’s nothing particularly exciting about it. It’s not a horror movie. Rather, it’s a family (melo)drama with a ghoul attached and the suggestion of frights (particularly in the brilliant trailer) that never quite materialise. The book, in which Mister Babadook first appears, is a genius creation, the stuff of nightmares, but unfortunately he features in it more than in the actual film. In fact, the big bad Babadook doesn’t even make his presence known for the first half of the movie, which begs the question – why even bother with him at all, aside from as a marketing ploy of course? Overall, The Babadook appears around four times total, and only really elicits one great jump scare. Considering the movie devolves into little more than a (bad) suburban possession thriller, there isn’t really much need for him at all. It easily could’ve been made with any kind of paranormal presence, and the results would’ve been exactly the same. So, why the hell isn’t The Babadook about the goddamned Babadook?

The other huge, glaring issue with the film is the toxic, abusive central relationship between mother and son. It boasts a fine performance from Essie Davis, as the mother, but the only reason she’s had plaudits heaped upon her is because the woman somehow manages not to strangle her demon of a child – who, to be honest, is far more intimidating than poor ol’ Mister Babadook. Samuel (played by Noah Wiseman) suffocates his poor mother from the outset, often physically. He shrieks pretty much everything he says, wrecks their home, pushes his cousin out of a tree-house, brings weapons to school, consistently disobeys his mother, pushes her over while screaming “DO YOU WANNA DIE!” and even assures her The Babadook is going to get her. Are they working together or something? Is he not scared of The Babadook? Why does he want his mother to suffer so badly, when she’s doing the best she can to raise him after losing his father, quite literally, the moment he was born?

The Babadook 1The most disturbing element to their relationship (more disturbing than any of the so-called “horror” traits of the movie) is how easily Samuel manipulates his mother, cooing that he doesn’t want anything to happen to  her, stroking her face and telling her that he loves her so that when the school (rightfully) complains about him acting up, she sides with the little brat instead of the authorities. This sets off a sequence of events during which the poor mother cuts off everyone who cares about her, eventually stranding herself and her child in their dark, creepy house as she gets less and less sleep and the walls start to close in on her. In fact, The Babadook could feasibly be a study of sleep-deprivation, stress, PTSD or even the trauma and often lifelong grief attributed to losing a loved one so suddenly. It doesn’t need a ghoulish presence to be any of those things, either. Suggestions have also been made that the creature could be seen as a metaphor for loss, or even depression, but to me this is giving it more credit than it’s due. The Babadook isn’t there from the beginning, so unless he’s feeding off their unhappiness (it’s fair to say he isn’t, based on the ending) this really makes little sense.

As this is supposed to be a story of possession, in the vein of Polanski, the usual clichés are trotted out to trick us into thinking we’re watching something completely different, including the dog turning on the mother once he cops something sinister is afoot, the electricity going a bit bonkers, a tinkly nursery rhyme score, a fully-clothed bath, an influx of insects that nobody else can see and, naturally, doors closing and opening on their own. The Babadook is being heralded as this new voice in horror, but there’s nothing new about it. The possession angle falls completely flat, as Samuel suddenly turns brave once his mother is possessed, rendering Mister Babadook a moot point in their story. However, this could be taken either as part of the cycle of abuse (he later beats the shit out of her, using various home-made weapons) or simply because he isn’t facing up to the actual creature.

Much has been made about the style of this film, with the usual rubbish about how the picture has a “Gothic” or “German expressionist” feel to it (proving, once again, that film school grads will use any opportunity available to them to spout something they think will make them seem smarter than regular fans). Sure, it looks dark and moody, and there are some spiky shadows on the walls but that doesn’t make it a masterpiece, it makes it highly derivative. The pallette is all greys, dark blues and blacks but it only adds to the dullness, not the scare factor. The design of the monster is good, but he’s nothing new or special. The knife hands are Freddy Krueger, the ambling walk and shadow are straight up Nosferatu.  Are we supposed to buy into him because, much like Malibu Stacy, he has a new hat?

When we get a prolonged shot of The Babadook, it’s as a CGI blur on the ceiling that looks a bit like quick-spreading mould. He may groan and squeal and crackle, but the sound is more effective than the sight – it almost would’ve been better to leave him unseen, as a mystery, and allow us to conjure up our own, horrid monster in his place. It’s difficult to understand why the mother is so terrified of the creature because he doesn’t actually do anything of note. There is no mythos from which to draw fear, and she barely glimpses him (standing behind her elderly neighbour, in probably the best shot of the film) before he shows up, full force in front of her. Where’s the threat, or the intrigue, apart from in the book?

The Babadook 2Wes Craven’s genre-defining masterpiece is a rather obvious influence here. As well as Mister Babadook bearing more than a passing resemblance to Mister Krueger, he is also dispensed with in exactly the same fashion. The mother, much like Nancy, defies his power by refusing to believe he’s real, eventually standing up to him. Considering The Babadook is, supposedly, unstoppable, the dynamic duo manages to defeat him remarkably easily. This isn’t an issue in A Nightmare On Elm Street because Craven makes Krueger an instant, malevolent presence, introducing us to him in the opening sequence of the film. Mister Babadook, as previously discussed, barely appears at all. He’s also subsequently locked up in the basement as a pet. This may be simply setting up the sequels, but considering he only really has a book to his name, it’s difficult to really care who he haunts next.

The most disturbing element regarding the ending of the film, however, is that Samuel still hasn’t learned his lesson. When a couple of social workers turn up to check in on him, he humiliates his mother in much the same way he did earlier in the movie, essentially making out that she’s an abusive parent. Although, it seems that the real abuser is actually the spoiled, selfish, borderline psychotic child, for whose death I can’t help but wish. Horror lives or dies on whether we can empathise with the protagonists because if we can’t put ourselves in their shoes we won’t be scared. In the case of The Babadook, I find it impossible to care what happens to either of these hideous people. Samuel is a brat who should be strangled, and his mother deserves to be alone and miserable because she keeps giving in to him and refuses to accept help from, well, anyone beside her kindly neighbour (who we all know isn’t going to discipline him anyway).

All things considered, The Babadook isn’t a very good horror movie, or even really a horror movie at all. It isn’t scary in the slightest, the creature doesn’t show up for much of the film and, when he does, is a massive disappointment who is about as scary as the hat and coat he leaves behind. No tension is built up and the ending isn’t just predictable and nonsensical, it’s dull. There’s no arc for either character, as they both end up just as horrible as when the film began. The flick could be broadly taken as a study of the effects of trauma, sleep deprivation and extreme stress but, on at least one of those counts, it’s been done before and better.

Australian Horror. The scary Babadook from the movie written and directed by Jennifer Kent.This should not be heralded as a new voice in horror, in particular, as it’s nothing new. Even just in the context of last year, there were a number of genre offerings that pushed the boundaries further including, but not limited to, Cheap Thrills, Late Phases, Blue Ruin, and even Tusk which, although flawed, at least attempted something different.

There are no particularly striking visuals here (and all of them are in the trailer, anyway), no standout moments of terror and the performances, although strong, aren’t memorable. Its worst crime, from a horror perspective, is squandering its monster who, in the end, looks weak because he’s beaten with very little effort. Although not nearly as offensive or mind-numbing as something like Ouija, The Babadook still does not justify the hype.

It’s a good first try on Kent’s behalf but it references everything that’s come before and, if a sequel is indeed on the way, the makers of it are going to have to work extra hard to establish The Babadook as a genuine threat, and his prey as victims worthy of our concern, before I pay any attention to it. Or maybe it’s just me..?

  • Tifi-chan

    THANK YOU! I kept feeling like i was the only one who felt this way. Everyone told me how amazing this movie was, and upon seeing it, I was afraid I’d watched the wrong movie. I absolutely did not like it at all. (And actually, I liked Ouija lol)

    • I’m SO relieved someone feels the same, it’s like I’ve been taking crazy pills this whole time! I just felt it was very derivative, not at all scary, and I don’t buy into this profound idea that the monster is a manifestation of her depression. I think that’s giving the film way too much credit. Nothing wrong with liking Ouija, it was fun!

      • Tifi-chan

        Ouija reminded me a lot of the movies that were coming out right after Scream, trying to jump on it’s success. Which made it fun 🙂

        My best friend told me how much she LOVED The Babadook. And usually I go with her recommendations (she and I both loved Ginger Snaps, All Cheerleaders Die, American Mary..), but I was like “did she and I watch the same movie?”

  • Speaksvolumes

    It is extremely overrated. My friend and I both laughed out loud when the creature first appeared on the ceiling. The kid is annoying as fuck. Overlong, drawn out, and frankly pretty boring. I think it’s getting all the attention because it’s directed by a woman, and there is a push to recognize films made by women.

  • Oh my goodness, this was ridiculously overrated. As I watched the same overdone, derivative scene and plot points present themselves, I wondered myself if this was really the same movie that everyone was oohing and ahhing over! If they wanted to make a movie about a mother’s grief, depression, inability to cope, yaddy yadda, why didn’t they just make a straight-up drama about it? Why try to make a horror movie about it? Why introduce the Babadook, who, as you say, does absolutely nothing and is not scary at all? So disappointing.

    • I felt like a leper for not having this in my top five for the year but I just didn’t have the same swooning reaction everyone else seemed to. I didn’t dislike it but I think it was a victim of its own hype. I wanted to throttle that screaming, whining child. Glad to see Joey getting so much support for her brave point of view on this.

      • Thank you! I’m really surprised by the lack of backlash…

        Michele, you hit the nail on the head; why bother to make it a horror flick and then pretend that it was actually deeper than that? Why not just make it a drama? The monster could’ve featured anyway. In fact, it probably would’ve made more sense! I know the hype machine was in overdrive, but I was so excited for it regardless and I caught it in the perfect environment (late night, at a horror festival) but it just fell flat. Worse, it was dull.

        • Kitty Trundlebutt

          The reason for not simply making it a drama is due to the amount of tax-derived budget $$ allocated to other dram films/tv shows during that funding-season, in conjuction with public demands for publc monies to be given to ‘genre’ films versus more ‘boo-hoo-Oprah’ stuff. The ppl whom green light films in Australia openly deride horror films, and love ‘boo-hoo’ films, so a boo-hoo film pretending to be a horror film, thus save $$ on promotion, and not compete ala ‘market-share’ with crap like ‘The Slap, was a dream come true for those whom delegate fim budgets here in Australa.

  • Serpenthrope

    Finally saw it. I was scared by it, yes, but it also pissed me the hell off in the exact same way The Others did. Redemption tales can be great, but not for fucking child abusers. If you have to do one, let them reconcile with their adult child. A woman with a mental illness so severe she nearly killed her child should not get to keep raising that child just because her illness is momentarily under control.

    Don’t get me wrong, I felt sorry for her, but at the end I was like “…how confident are you that you can keep that thing in the basement until your child is old enough to be out of danger?”

    • Thank you for reading, glad you enjoyed it a bit more than me.

      A good friend of mine has an autistic child, and it really hit home with him too. I absolutely agree about the mother, because, as I wrote above, she doesn’t actually learn her lesson in the end, or teach her son a lesson for that matter. There’s no character growth, which makes their plight kind of difficult to empathise with. But I’m glad you could empathise.

      • Serpenthrope

        I actually feel like the son did learn a lesson at the end, it was just subtle. As an autistic person I constantly have to walk a fine line between trying too hard to fit in, and not being open to criticism. I think the fact that the kid was shooting darts at a dartboard instead of breaking windows indicates he was beginning to get a better idea of what was and wasn’t acceptable. Yes, he clearly still had work to do, but it was at least progress.

        After watching the movie I actually thought of the perfect ending: why not have the woman live with the Babadook and keep him sated, while sending her son to live with someone else? Then, the ending becomes a heroic sacrifice, with her doing what’s best for the child.

      • Vanihm

        The fact that you think there was no character growth shows why you (and a lot of others here) missed the point – she was trying to bury her greif (not depression, greif is not an illness) by denying it exists, which made her unable to get close to her son as he reminded her of his father. In the end she embraces him meaning that she’s faced her grief and moved on with her life.

  • Pete Matuszewski

    Though I would argue that characters don’t necessarily have to be all that likable, you’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head. In addition to your previous points, I was really disappointed with the story’s lack of direction. It really didn’t seem like it could make up it’s mind about what kind of story it was trying to tell. After a point, it comes across like the Babadook is just the embodiment of the mother’s depression, isolation, stress, etc. etc., and of course that’s when it all becomes a bit predictable, but then… it really is an evil presence living in their house? What is it? Where did it come from? How did the book wind up in the kid’s room? How did it come back after she destroyed it? These are all questions which hurt the story by letting them go unanswered. Sometimes ambiguity can work, but this seemed more like the screenwriter was just too lazy to come up with explanations and tried to fall back on “Mike Myers is evil just because” cliche. Ghosts and evil presences just don’t do it for me unless they’re done right. This was a major miss.

    I also saw this movie in the same week I saw ‘Housebound’. Which was another Australian film and one infinitely more deserving of attention. (Everyone I ask about it has never heard of it) If you haven’t seen it, you must. I thought it was original, clever, suspenseful, and really funny, but would love to know what you think.

    • Totally agree with you, and good call on the Myers cliche, I’d argue that’s exactly what was being attempted here.

      I have indeed seen Housebound and absolutely loved it. Hilariously dry, consistently entertaining and downright frightening at times. But it’s a New Zealand production, not Australian, so maybe that’s why there’s no Babadook-esque rubbish!

      • Pete Matuszewski

        Whoops! You’re right. My apologies to all the New Zealanders out there. Being a stupid American, I get the two confused sometimes.

  • kidglov3s

    I just watched this and was disappointed to see yet another possession/paranormal bullshit movie where y’know, everything’s entirely ambiguous and it all feels like a big cloud of nothing. I assumed this would be more than what might as well have been Paranormal Activity 6/Deliver Us From Evil 2/Last Exorcism 3/Woman in Black 3/Haunting in Australia, etc.

    I mean I know Ouija, The Pyramid and The Lazarus Effect are shitty movies, but at least they’re shitty movies in which things happen.

    • Totally agree, and at least in the case of those movies they aren’t pretending to be super deep. The Pyramid is about rubbish-looking cat creature thingies, for example, it’s not like the director is pretending the kitties actually represent some sort of mental illness.

  • Kitty Trundlebutt

    Luckily none of you are ‘wrong’, nor took ‘crazy pills’. And each of you said so much of what I would have typed, but thankfully, ‘ya’ll got there first’, lol. But there are many aspects of why this film was not a horror film veneered as a horror film, many reasons, which come from disparities between the mechanics of Aussie film-making, primarily budgetary ones, and also what support from Aussie radio/TV a ‘Babadook’ type film will receive (so the director-auteur of Babadook can gain further funding from the tax-funded film agencies here), and in fact, need. More later, though let it be said: I’ve had Vitnam War Vet relatives. I respected both their personal and military lives. But as a horror film fan, this was not in conflict with my ABIDING disgust (as a horror film fan) towards ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, which wimped out in the same way Babadook did, and in fact Babadook (it could be argued) ripped off. ‘The monster is THERE or it is not’. If it is not, it’s an Oprah episode seeking to gain heat from Supernatural Film popularity, nothing more. And that means FALSE AVERTISING.

    Which came up on twitter days before the global premiere of Babadook in Australia, seen by Aussie horror fans, whom hate to be media-manipulated, thus Babadook MISERABLY FAILED in the Aussie box office.

  • Dominic Tesch

    I think that the delivery was all wrong. The movie in and of itself wasn’t scary at all. The idea however was frightening. If the movie was scarier, more shots of the babadook itself and more scenes of the possesion, it could have been better.

  • Mimo Stark

    Who do you think was a worse character, the mother, or the son? I vote mother. (I think) The son is psychologically damaged by his loss of a father and the babadook just sets him off. He makes weapons because he is powerless to things like the babadook and his dad’s death so he wants to feel like he has some control. The mother just takes away these because their dangerous and she doesn’t think about her son’s psyche or his trauma, only her own.

  • Patrick

    I’m late in responding because I found the movie so forgettable that I’d forgotten all about it. What can I say about such a hyped up horror film? It did not scare me at all. Not once. As far as spfx, I seem to recall that the Babadook might have been cut from a piece of black construction paper, pasted to a popsicle stick and then jiggled around in front of the camera every now and then. Perhaps that’s an uncharitable exaggeration, but I have been sorely disappointed by so many highly rated horror films, that in my opinion, can’t even conjure up a decent scare. Are the reviewers who praise these movies aware of something I am not? Am I the victim of an unfortunate condition that has somehow left my fear receptors deadened?

  • Vanihm

    I don’t mind people criticizing highly regarded movies, but at least take the time to read some online articles, message boards etc to make sure that you don’t embarrass yourself by COMPLETELY MISSING THE POINT. The fact that you mentioned a sequel shows that you didn’t get that this was an arthouse flick and didn’t get that the Babadook was metaphorical. All the best horror films (and no, I don’t consider “Nightmare on Elm Street” in that category) have the beast be a metaphor for real-life issues at some level. This one was just taking it a bit further (having the monster embody the mothers’ grief).
    Sure, they could have made a domestic drama out of it, but some emotions just are too stong to be conveyed in a conventional way, so having a monster represent them can somethimes be a way to show how things REALLY feel to those who go through them.