The Babadook is a fantastic movie, full stop — not just a fantastic horror movie, or a fantastic thriller — because it's about terror based on reason.
Trends come and go with little warning, and there are always outliers that don't go with the herd, but in general, many modern horror films have rooted themselves in senselessness of cause when it comes to narrative. The person or people being hunted and killed did nothing to warrant their punishment; rather, they suffer for no reason. 2008's The Strangers, a stomach-churning home invasion film starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, takes this to an extreme as it depicts a group of invaders in baggy masks who trap and murder a husband and wife in their own house. When Tyler's characters begs to know why they're being hurt, one of the killers responds glumly with, "Because you were home." It's the strain of nihilistic horror film that sees suffering everywhere but no hope for escape. The torture porn vogue of the early 2000s was similarly down on reason and nuance: you meet the wrong person, you die, end of story.
The Babadook, though, is frightening, engaging, and moving precisely because of the degree to which it rejects that kind of nihilism and instead connects its central haunting to character and narrative. The Babadook is a monster, but a monster born of the feelings of the main character, Amelia (Essie Davis). It's a physical manifestation of the grief she feels at the death of her husband in a car accident almost seven years earlier, as well as the guilt she feels from wishing her husband had survived and her unborn son had died in the accident. Amelia's haunting is hers alone, and her actions have created the Babadook and lent it power. The horror, in other words, makes sense. By rooting the origin of the horror in the characters' actions, writer-director Jennifer Kent is able to tell a tale that's both unnerving and sympathetic.
There's a gorgeous surreality to the visuals that places the film in a fable-like world. Almost every room in the house is gray, which highlights the storybook nature of the film while also serving as a manifestation of Amelia's stagnation and grief. She's surrounded by darkness, living in it, without even knowing it.
We never see the Babadook, not really. Some shadows and hands, some arms, a blurred face. In part it's because the idea of something is always scarier than its execution; this is Horror 101. But it's also because The Babadook is a manifestation of this specific character's grief, and grief is both hard to see and different for everyone. It's a universal emotion individually applied. We all grieve alone. Only we know what it looks like.
Kent stages most of the film with wide, direct, often formal images. There are only two instances where the viewer can accurately predict where the monster will appear: when Amelia's looking out her window into her kindly old neighbor's living room, and when Amelia later runs from the monster and collapses next to an empty fireplace. Both of these use basic negative space to prime the viewer for the creature's appearance: there's a nice gap on the left side of the frame behind the back of the neighbor's chair, and there's a similar gap, also on the left side of the frame, when Amelia collapses with her back to the hearth.
Kent knows the suspense inherent in doing this (we even see Amelia look into her neighbor's living room earlier, with the same expectant shot composition, but not creature), but she's also smart enough not to overdo it. Many of the film's most haunting images look straight ahead into darkness and shadow, mimicking Amelia's attempt to see what's in front of her. These images are eerie and affecting precisely because they abandon the idea of cheap tricks (music stings, shaky framing, etc.) and force us to stare into the darkness for just a few moments. It's almost more than we can take.
The film's most unsettling sequence relies on precisely this kind of disquiet. Amelia, driven into a hallucinatory dream state after days of restlessness, walks down into her basement and sees a vision of her deceased husband. When he appears, he's bathed in a peaceful, almost angelic light, and Kent cuts from a shot of Amelia to one of her husband to show us her perspective:
Amelia sees him and almost can't believe what's happening. Overcome with emotion and a sense of relief, she embraces him:
In the course of talking to him, though, she realizes the apparition is related to the creature that's been haunting her. She backs away slowly, her dread growing:
Kent then repeats the cut from earlier, snapping back to Amelia's husband, only now Amelia's perspective has changed. This is what she sees, and so do we:
It's horrifying, precisely because of what it is and what Kent does with it. We don't see a gruesome monster, or even an empty space to show that the vision was unreal. Rather, what once was lit is now in shadow, and we're unable to make out the details of the man's face. He's bathed in darkness, speaking in a soulless groan, emanating an evil and control that's almost palpable. (It's also worth noting that the imagined version of her husband looked off-camera, while the shadowy horror looks right into it; by looking the thing head on, Amelia's able to see what it really is.) This is masterfully done, and endlessly more gripping than a cheap shock. Kent's work recalls David Lynch in many ways, with its willingness to hold long, static takes on unsettling images and a reliance on effective sound design to augment those visuals. There's a kind of insectile buzzing that accompanies the appearances and intrusions of the Babadook, and it's often so well done it only becomes noticeable when it stops.
The film is ultimately about the toxicity of grief, the way it poisons slowly over time. The Babadook is the thing we don't want to address, the shame and guilt we live with over something from our past: surviving something we wish we hadn't, loving someone we wish we didn't. That's a powerful thing for any story to be about it, and it's only a short jump from a drama about unrealized life to a horror story with an externalized villain. The story's already horrific on an emotional level. That's also what makes the film's plot and message so rewarding: grief is almost never a thing that can be beaten, merely managed. We run from it, face it, moderate it, discuss it, and might eventually find ourselves able to hold it in our hands without fear of losing control of it. But it's always going to be there.