The story itself is a pretty simple one. Amelia (Essie Davis, Matrix Revolutions) is a single mother raising her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman, The Gift) herself. He continues to act up and is fixated on monsters existing, even at six years old, to the point that he actually builds his own version of a crossbow that leads to Amelia pulling him out of school after the administrators talk about separating him from the other children and providing a monitor for him. After he finds the story about the Babadook and demands his mother read it because she told him whatever book he wanted to hear, everything begins to escalate, leading to the manifestation of the storied character as Amelia’s mental state begins to dwindle to unhealthy levels the more obnoxiously out of control Samuel becomes.
While The Babadook has earned plenty of praise from critics and movie goers alike, there is just so much working against the film that truly hinders the overall impact. The main issue to be taken away lies within the audio. Regardless of whether watching on 5.1 stereo or 2.0 stereo, the levels are that special kind of poorly mixed irritation that you find yourself rushing to the remote to fix them yourself in the blink of an eye. The best example is whenever you are listening in on dialogue in the car, everything is loud save for the actual discussion. Other than when someone is screaming you can’t hear any of it due to being drowned out so badly by the car’s engine or just being in motion. The other ambient effects for tension also just build to ear-piercing levels at the most basic a volume level, especially when the Babadook itself starts to creep into the story.
On top of the poor audio mixing, this suffers from the general directorial hack tactic of establishing mood and tension of having every dark scene greeted with hushed, often near whispered dialogue. When there is daylight or any major light source in general, everyone talks like a human being. However, when the sun sets and you enter the evening, it’s as if every single person is trying to not wake the baby five feet away from them. It’s infuriating and in no way helps to convey the proper tone when it ends up abused every single time through the entire run of the film. The best example is Channel Zero: No End House on Syfy, though a little less rigid compared to that televised nightmare everyone also seems to love for some inexplicable reason.
And then you have Samuel himself. Yes, the point in the writing was to make him out of control and annoying, but Noah Wiseman just makes the character intolerable to believe that anyone with any hint of common sense wouldn’t have taken him to a doctor or psychiatrist a while ago. At one point he just starts screaming his head off in the back of the car while Amelia just sits there, clearly contemplating life, and it is still drowned out a bit by the sound of the running vehicle! So that right there are two truly insane levels of obnoxious that truly test the level of patience you have to even continue on with the absurdly out of proportion madness directed by Jennifer Kent and considered acceptable enough to leave you caring about either character by the end which, by the way, it doesn’t. After that scene you’ll be wishing Amelia would drive the car off the bridge or let the Babdook in to take her child and just let the damn film end prematurely.
Negativity aside, The Babadook does manage to nail the atmosphere through its visuals and lighting. As mentioned, there is a distinct difference between the day and night scenes. During the day, everything seems fine as Amelia tries her best to hide her mental state and current life issues such as Samuel (Noah Wiseman, The Gift) continuing to act out leading to Amelia pulling hin out of school. But when home and the amount of light in the scene begins to dwindle to nothing, everything starts to seep to the top. Samuel’s out-of-control attitude and fixation on monsters, not to mention talkative approach to life, all continue to grate on his mother’s nerves as she escapes into horror movies and attempts to get a good night’s sleep. It’s during these hours that Amelia begins losing her sanity slowly, paced out perfectly that you are left genuinely wondering if it’s her or the Babadook itself wreaking havoc.
Spoiler alert in following paragraph:
But, that’s about where the praise ends. Much of the writing hammers the fact that Amelia’s husband died taking her to the hospital when her water broke. She had given birth to Samuel that day as well. Due to this constant reminder and her own actions, it becomes pretty clear she has some degree of survivor’s guilt and hatred towards the scapegoat that is her son. This plays a major role in whether or not the Babadook is real or just a mental snap manifesting as the creature manipulating her via visions of her late husband. When she breaks free of the “possession” and stands up against the beast itself, the film should have ended there. Instead it carries on in a far more comedic than necessary manner. As it lies on the ground, the incarnation literally starts ooing like a ghost instead of whimpering, makes another attack, then runs scared like a bear met with incredibly loud noises. The rest, however, I will not spoil.
There was plenty of potential within The Babadook and, had a number of elements been better, this could have been a fantastic psychological thriller. Sadly, the shift in tone from one extreme to another without warning, god awful audio mixing, and the ever annoying hushed dialogue abuse that makes the atmosphere infuriating as you struggle to hear what the hell is being said all end up making The Babadook more of a frustrating experience than a pleasantly tense one. Thankfully the continued loss of sanity portrayed by Essie Davis is done well enough in both the writing and acting that it can be a bit annoying at times, but feels like a natural descent into madness. Even then, The Babadook is just not as fantastic a flick as many will lead you to believe.