It’s rare that poor acting is a benefit to a film. I’m not sure if it is with The Babadook, but the most lasting thought I have from this Australian horror film is the poor acting from one of its leads. In this particular case, it’s Noah Wiseman, who plays a young child named Samuel. Kids usually suck at acting — they just do — but this might be the most annoying movie kid since Dakota Fanning in War of the Worlds. They both try to go for the screaming record, anyway.
I note that this might be beneficial because you’re not really supposed to be on the side of the child in this movie. He’s a little crazy and not particularly nice, so it’s okay that we lose patience with him because of poor acting, too. Instead, we’re following his mother, Amelia (Essie Davis), who eventually goes full Piper Laurie mode, as she deals with his antics and the ever-present grief of losing her husband … seven years ago. The anniversary is coming up, which also coincides with Samuel’s birthday, since the husband died driving Amelia to the airport to give birth. How’d she eventually make it? No clue, and it doesn’t matter.
One night, Amelia reads a bedtime story to her son. It’s about someone named Mr. Babadook, and it’s something on which her son begins to fixate. It’s a scary story, one which claims that Mr. Babadook will come and get you, and you’ll never get rid of him. Samuel begins acting out more than usual, so Amelia rips up the book, thinking that’ll be the end of it. It’s not, of course, and soon enough she has a monster on her hands.
The only things we have to see now are two-fold. (1) Does the monster really exist, or is it a manifestation of the grief that Amelia feels for losing her husband and the annoyance she feels toward her son. (2) What will Mr. Babadook do to our heroine and those around her? Will it just scare everyone for a while, or will it wind up following through on the book’s threats and harm or kill anyone and everyone into whom she comes into contact?
The answers? You’ll have to watch to find out. I’ll spoil the first one a touch and say that Mr. Babadook is not purely allegorical, which is a shame because I think we might have a better, more thoughtful movie if he was. Once we find out that the monster exists, doesn’t that kind of mean that all of the guilt-induced stuff wasn’t really guilt-induced at all? It was all caused by a monster? That really doesn’t make The Babadook particularly smart or thoughtful at all, except that it tried to scare us with lies. And, well, at least there’s that.
The Babadook is sometimes scary, and that it makes us think about real-world problems — and presents them in a terrifying way — does make it better than your average horror movie. But just keep in mind that your average horror movie sucks, and having a little bit of thoughtfulness or intelligence is only half the battle. The film still needs to be scary, which The Babadook only intermittently is. The first 45 minutes are pretty dull, and once we find out Mr. Babadook is just a monster, he gets significantly less interesting. There’s maybe 20-30 minutes of actual great film here; the rest is competent but nothing special.
One consistently great element is Essie Davis, who has to show quite the range in this role. She has to go from caring mother to possessed-by-a-monster-and-spewing-hatred in just a couple of scenes, and fill in the rest over the course of the film’s duration. She also has to act alongside Noah Wiseman, awful as the kid, for most of the film, which must have been a challenge on its own.
The Babadook is better than your average horror movie, since it lies to you and makes you think it’s about real-life horrors and not those of a monster-hiding-in-the-closet variety, and in doing so becomes thought-provoking and genuinely scary. Sure, it doesn’t exactly turn out that way, but at least for a good 20-30 minutes, it does this and is very effective. The rest of the movie is competent and the lead actor, Essie Davis, is really great. Her co-star, Noah Wiseman, is not, but it makes you hate his character which actually works out fine. The Babadook is not a must-see, but for horror fans it’ll be something worth watching.