Holy cow, has 2014 been a banner year for horror films or what? Excluding all the annual genre junk like Annabelle or Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, there’s been a yearlong succession of really interesting and unique material which explores the boundaries of the genre quite efficiently. This has been one of the strongest runs for horror fans in quite a while, featuring films like Oculus, Honeymoon, Tusk; as well as the yet to be released but much anticipated It Follows still to come. Thankfully, the new Australian horror film The Babadook is another title to continue this marathon of splendid horror treats.
Plot-wise, the setup for this story is pretty simple, as is also the case with some of the genre’s most highly regarded works. Fitting into the categorization of supernatural horror, we follow a widow and her young child who live all alone together in a (mostly) empty house. But after the mother reads her son an ominous bedtime story one night, elements from that story start to creep over into the real world, including the story’s central spook, the titular Babadook.
Ridiculous title notwithstanding, The Babadook is one of the more engaging horror films you’re likely to see this year. Similar to last summer’s The Conjuring, while it doesn’t necessarily bring anything especially new or innovative to the table (aside from some sight unseen original creature designs and effects), it effectively uses some admittedly old hat genre tropes to its advantage, and part of the experience is the anticipation of the scares just as much as the payoff itself -the cornerstone of any effective or memorable contemporary chiller.
Many have credited this film for its favorability of strong characterizations and tension building over always going with the cheap trills and immediate payoffs, for which I cannot fault the film at all. Also interesting is not just the external terror created by the monster, but rather the internal damage being done as well. The stress of the situation really weighs down on the characters, and more harm is done through secondhand horrors as much as anything else in the film. It’s a truly interesting way to approach the subject of a supernatural presence, and The Babadook pulls this angle off splendidly.
All of that being said, cinematic perfection is all but unattainable, at least now-a-days, and it would be remiss of this reviewer not to point out some of the more noteworthy flaws herein. Namely, in regards to the payoff. While the emotional arcs that are set up in the film all amount to a satisfying narrative conclusion, it feels as if the more horror-centric aspects of the story are abandoned in favor of focusing on the central mother/son relationship – which is all handled well enough, but once the supernatural elements begin to resurface towards the very end, it can’t help but feel merely obligatory at this point, and it doesn’t help that sound effects signifying the presence of the Babadook itself are practically identical to ones used in countless children’s films from the late 80’s-early 90’s. My guess is that director Jennifer Kent has never watched The Land Before Time, or else the sounds being generated from the monster probably would’ve been altered.
This really has been a terrific year for the horror genre, and The Babadook just feels like the cherry on top of an already delicious cake. It’s been a longtime coming, so horror fans rejoice at the most consistently impressive lineup of genre films we’ve had in a number of years. Let’s hope the streak continues well into 2015.