I probably shouldn’t have to write this, but there will be spoilers.
I wasn’t a big fan of the Evil Dead remake. There are a number of reasons for this – including re-make burnout in general – but what ruffled my feathers the most was that the makers had a smart idea that they just didn’t do much with. Instead of simply making it a movie about a bunch of kids looking for an out-of-the-way spot to party who unearth an ancient evil, the remote spot was chosen because one person in the group was a junkie, and her friends wanted the opportunity to both confront her and force her to go cold turkey. The remote location meant said junkie couldn’t just run off, ignore them, look for a new place to fix. It also meant if shit got heavy, there was no concern about neighbors calling in the cops. Plus, beyond the setting, a drug-crazed pal acts a lot like a person possessed by a demon, giving the filmmakers plenty of parallels to work with. That resulted in a mix was a little bit of brilliance with plenty of potential.
The problem? It felt to me like the Evil Dead folks skated through that set up as quickly as they could to get to the CGI-laden madness that surrounds the Book of the Dead. That drug-crazed/possessed angle should have been pushed to the brink, the druggie fighting like mad to get her friends to believe her, the friends refusing to bite on what they see as more lies until they are confronted so bluntly and forcefully with the truth that it could no longer be ignored. The potential for dramatic tension was great, but the Evil Dead re-boot failed to take advantage of it.
Where Evil Dead failed, The Babadook more than succeeded. The story is about a young boy and his mom. The father is no longer in the picture, having died in a car accident while driving his pregnant wife to the hospital to give birth. Young Samuel is now in grade school and having problems. He lives in fear of monsters under his bed or in his closet, even making weapons – weapons with a potential to do serious damage, especially in the hands of a small child – to prepare for his inevitable fight to save his life. His mom, Amelia, is like a lot of single moms. She works a thankless, low-paying job. She’s constantly in a tug-of-war between work and her needy child. It wears her down, physically and emotionally. She has a hard time sleeping and has to leave work frequently to deal with Samuel’s problems.
Then the Babadook enters the picture. The Babadook lives in corner and shadows. Confrontation is a last resort, after he slowly wears down his victims to the point where they welcome the brutality to end the fear and dread.
But is the Babadook real? I’d argue we never quite know. We know Samuel is an imaginative child with emotional problems, so the Babadook could be just his delusion. It could represent his mother, who after years of grieving her husband, supporting her child and sustaining herself, is simply falling apart, a volatile mix of depression, lack of sleep, sadness and rage, a cauldron of ugliness just waiting to boil over. The movie is pretty careful not to tip its hand. Even at points where the viewer might think, “OK, there really is a monster,” it could be the collective hallucination of two people who have sunk so far into their own dysfunction and isolation that they no longer have even a less-than-firm grasp on reality.
To me, that’s where the true terror is. Not the wicked, vile Babadook, a black spectre in a top hat with fingernails like knives. The horror in not knowing whether or not you can trust what you perceive to be reality, that’s truly disturbing.
So, at this point, I think the only thing I have to add is this: Please don’t make a sequel. Don’t besmirch the good name of a fine horror movie by turning it into a machine to crank out cash. But do give writer-director Jennifer Kent the opportunity to go wherever her talent takes her. I know I’m willing to follow.