This decade hasn’t been too kind to horror films. While the genre has certainly produced some good films in recent years, there have been a lot more that would be considered bad. But the Austrailian horror flick The Babadook is being touted by many as not only one of the best horror films of the decade, but one of the scariest films of all time. Even William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, claimed that The Babadook was the most terrifying film that he had ever seen. I’m certainly not going to make those grandiose claims, but I will say that it’s a very good film, one with striking dramatic resonance to go along with the scares. And while the film is undeniably creepy, I actually think that the film’s dramatic elements work far better than any of its scares. Writer/director Jennifer Kent’s debut feature may have been overhyped, but it’s still a well-made film about the pains of motherhood.

Amelia (Essie Davis) is still trying to get over the death of her husband, who tragically died in a car accident while driving her to the hospital to give birth. Now she lives alone with her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), a dysfunctional a young boy who is always getting into trouble. He’s often too much for Amelia to handle and her life is becoming increasingly more stressful because of him. One night, Samuel finds a picture book on his shelf and asks his mother to read it to him. The book is entitled Mister Babadook and talks of a strange creature that will plague the lives of those who encounter it. Soon after, Samuel begins to claim that he can see Mister Babadook and this only makes his life more dysfunctional. Amelia’s life begins to unravel at the seams and it only gets worse when the threat of Mister Babadook turns out to be real.

The Babadook is more than just a horror movie, with the title creature acting as a metaphor for Amelia’s grief over her dead husband. It’s an added layer of dramatic heft that isn’t typically seen in films that feature spooky creatures. Amelia’s story is a sad one and watching her wrestle with her demons makes for some of the most emotional moments in the entire film. How can she possibly celebrate her son’s birthday when that day also marks the anniversary of her husband’s death? Essie Davis is really good in the role, particularly when things begin to spiral out of control and everyone that she reaches out to refuses to believe her. As Samuel, Noah Wiseman delivers a surprisingly great performance, particularly for someone so young. Together, these two form a believably strained mother-son relationship.

When things begin to turn sour for Amelia and Samuel, the film is undeniably creepy throughout, but it’s never quite able to reach the level of being truly terrifying. The Babadook book that Amelia reads to her son offers some truly eerie gothic images, as does a dream sequence where Amelia watches a Georges Méliès-esque Babadook production on television. When the creature itself appears, it’s also very unsettling; Kent keeps the creature in the shadows for the majority of the film and never relies on jump scares. A scene where Amelia sees the creature standing in the doorway of her neighbor’s house is so much scarier because it doesn’t feature the loud, jolty noise that Hollywood horror is accustomed to. But the film is also filled with horror clichés, including flickering lights, an object that reappears after being thrown away and a creature that only a young child is able to see. But the bulk of the film’s scares come from Frank Lipson’s unbelievably disturbing sound design. The noises that the creature makes are so frightening that they make the rest of the film’s scares seem tame in comparison.

The film’s ending makes sense dramatically and in the context of the film’s themes, but it doesn’t really work plot-wise and it left me feeling a tad unsatisfied. There’s also a subplot involving a love interest for Amelia that goes absolutely nowhere, but Kent’s film works regardless of these flaws. It’s a dramatically resonant tale about a woman struggling to overcome her husband’s death and be a good mother to her son. The Babadook won’t keep you up at night like I had hoped it would, but it’s still a very good film regardless. I feel like the film would fall squarely between a 3 and a 3.5 on my rating scale, but I’m feeling generous, so I’ll round up.

The Babadook receives 3.5/4

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