The Macabre Brothers share an affinity for bargain-bin horror films. It’s actually more like an addiction – hardly a month goes by without one of us wasting $5 on some dubious DVD title. Such impulse buys may not deserve a full review, but like porn, they’re worth a quick and shameful glance. In Basement Ramblings, we answer your most meaningful question: Is this month’s piece of crap worth the price of a Big Mac?
The premise: A young Aussie lad, Samuel, is convinced that monsters haunt his room. The Babadook begins with what’s obviously a nightly event: Samuel wakes his perpetually tired mom, Amelia, to scour his room for invisible baddies. When she’s finished, he begs and pleads for bedtime stories until he can finally fall asleep in the wee hours, comfy and secure in a room with no ghouls. Mom goes along with it because, well, he’s her son, and she loves him, and her husband died tragically, and of course there’s no such thing as a bedroom monster.
Well, it ain’t so simple. This moody Australian flick takes that everyday occurrence and plays it on repeat, over and over and over until little Samuel’s neediness (and he absolutely comes across as needy) starts to wear on Mom. The slow-burning script by writer-director Jennifer Kent (her feature debut) then adds a winkle when a book of unknown origins arrives, dubbed “The Babadook.”
That can’t be good when it’s also the name of the film. But Sam is Sam, so he wants Mom to read it, despite the fact it’s filled with a few of the creepiest illustrations I’ve seen this side of “Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark.” But hey, I guess my parents didn’t mind that one, so why not “The Babadook?”
Needless to say, bad call on picking up the uninvited phantom book, Sam and Mom. After reading it, Samuel becomes obsessed with the Babadook. He begins setting booby traps and building homemade rocket launchers, all while forcing Mom to still check his room with soul-crushing regularity. He even scares classmates into believing the Babadook is real.
Meanwhile, Amelia/Mom is losing it. She’s getting hardly any sleep, what with Sam’s overactive imagination (right?), and it’s taking a toll on her job as an underpaid retirement home attendant. She’s also pretty hung up on her husband still, and her perfect sister won’t let her forget it (nor will her sister’s daughter, who reminds Sam that he doesn’t have a dad and is promptly pushed out of a tree house). Sam becomes so disruptive at school that Mom eventually pulls him out, stunning the pompous superintendent with a heartfelt defense of her otherwise obnoxious son. After all, he’s her son, and no one should ever threaten him. Right?
But the Babadook is just getting started. When Mom and Sam are home alone, the line between insanity and reality starts to blur. It’s also when the otherwise surefooted story begins to fall apart.
Where I found it: On Netflix, at the suggestion of our Halloween 2015 guest writer, Jessica Smith. I vaguely remember hearing about this one when it was first released, but I didn’t bother to track it down until she gushed over it. Also, it was free on Netflix.
Why it caught my eye: Just take one look at the creepy-ass Babadook. If nothing else, this film had the “Scary Stories” thing going for it. I was addicted to browsing those drawings and scaring myself shitless, even when the stories were kind of lame. Sometimes, in the weird world of horror, a few nightmarish visuals can make up for lackluster everything else.
What works: About an hour into this film, I was more frightened for a child than I’ve been since Jack told Danny he loved him in The Shining. The scene is something I haven’t been able to forget since I first saw it: Mom invites Samuel to take a bath with her after he’s been kicked out of school. It’s the middle of the night, she’s on the verge of losing her minimum wage job and — goddammit — Sam is yelling and screaming and just WON’T SHUT UP about the Babadook.
The scene lasts all of five minutes, and (spoiler alert) nothing actually happens. Still, for the five excruciating minutes before Mom gets out of the tub, I expected her to drown Samuel. It’s a sick and twisted outcome, but after a solid hour of queasy back and forth between the parent and child, I almost understood how Mom could drown her child. This film is a psychological thriller at its best, and when those undercurrents come to the surface, it’s much darker than even I expected.
That bathtub scene is one of several mom-might-kill-son moments that The Babadook does so well. For most of the film, I was simultaneously afraid for Samuel and hoping, wishing, even begging for him to stop being such a punk-ass bitch. I don’t have children, but I can’t imagine how an extremely needy child fits into a single mother’s daily grind. The film keeps hinting at supernatural forces — they must be there — but it plays best when the audience believes that the Babadook is just a figment of Amelia’s imagination. When it doesn’t, that’s where we run into problems.
What sucks: As usual (see Boogeyman), the final 30 minutes devolve into a bombastic whirlwind of supernatural terror, with Amelia and Samuel both feeling the rage of a very real Babadook. The film is at it’s best when the viewer believes that the monster is a figment of Mom’s imagination, some psychological creature created by a needy child with an overwhelmed mom.
But, as far as I’m concerned, the film presents the Babdook as real. Look at the finale: In one scene, the creature tosses Amelia against a wall, right in front of Samuel. Two characters see and feel a very real version of a previously unreal force. We can talk for days about reliable narrators and narrative viewpoints and everything else, but the film presents all actions as fact. It’s why I felt so queasy during the bathtub scene, but it’s also why I felt slightly disappointed by the overtly literal finale. As sick as it sounds, I wanted Mom to be on the verge of insanity — the film had convinced me she was capable of harming her own child. But, alas, she’s not the “real” threat, because the Babadook is able to physically lift and toss people across the kitchen. It’s shocking, sure, but it also kills the unbearable tension the filmmaker worked so hard to build.
Verdict: The Babadook is one hell of a frustrating film. For the first hour or so, it makes a convincing case for the everyday horror many single parents feel when raising a precocious (and incredibly needy) child. It runs into a brick wall after the titular creature appears, but by then, you’re committed to following Mom and Sam through to the bitter end. It’s a convincing portrait of domestic turmoil, even though it shies away from the darkness that makes it great