Although I always knew that nightmares were unpleasant and that insomnia was a real problem, I had never really thought about how sinister sleep could be until I heard the This American Life episode Fear of Sleep. That episode, which is about misfortunes that people suffer while they are "resting", really opened my eyes by showing me how little control we have over how we sleep. There are people who can't go to sleep; who can't stop going to sleep; who can't wake up easily; who can't stop waking up when they want to be slumbering; who are tormented by bad dreams, unrestful sleep, or sleepwalking. There are so many ways for it to go wrong and almost all of them are beyond our powers to fix. And the worst part is that it's not voluntarily - no matter how much you'd rather avoid it, if you don't sleep you will go insane.
Naturally, that means that sleep deprivation is a natural fit for a horror movie. The Babadook is about a single mother named Amelia whose son is a little too idiosyncratic and strong willed for his own good. One day a macabre children's book called The Babadook inexplicably shows up on her son's bookshelf, and shortly thereafter her son starts to claim that the monster from the book is real. At first she tells him what anyone would tell him - monsters don't exist and he's just imagining that a monster is stalking him. But every time he can't sleep he wakes Amelia up, and eventually she's so sleep deprived that she starts hallucinating monsters, too. Or is she hallucinating? What if the Babadook is real?
A lot of movies have a hard time doing dream scenes well, but Amelia's nightmares are easily the best part of the Babadook. Her insomnia allows the real world and the dream world to blur together in a way that's legitimately unsettling. The audience is watching these events unfold from her perspective, so as her mind grows more and more untethered, the audience grows more and more unsettled. You're never quite sure whether a scene is really happening or if it's a hallucination, which means that it's very hard to predict where the scares are going to come from; every scene could be a mundane scene of a tired mom struggling to get through the day, or it could suddenly veer into nightmare territory. That tension makes her predicament constantly scary: sure, the monster might strike at night, but during the day you are scared that she will hurt herself or the people she loves because she has no way to make herself get the sleep that would keep her from causing a serious accident. The film does a good job of tapping into real world fears in a visceral way, pushing Amelia towards anger, madness and guilt in a very believable way.
Unfortunately, the film doesn't trust that examining those realistic problems is enough - it still feels the need to have a bogeyman lunging at Amelia every few minutes. I've seen worse monsters than the Babadook, but he's far more creepy on the pages of a children's book than he is in the flesh. His top hat, super pale face and long fingernails echo silent film monsters like Nosferatu, but those monochromatic designs work better in black and white films. The film's solid sound design keeps his appearances from tipping too far into camp, but I did have to stifle a sarcastic chortle a few times after he appeared - his bug-eyed look reminded me less of a scary monster than it did a surprised gopher.
I can forgive the film that little problem - and I say little because the Babadook mostly stays in the shadows; he has so little screen time that his ineffectiveness as a monster doesn't ruin the whole thing - but the film does commit an unpardonable error at the end. The entire story has been built on ambiguity - is this real, or a hallucination? - and it ends up resolving it's nice duality in a way that was underwhelming to say the least. It reduces the Babadook to a symbol right at the very end, and not even a clever one - the whole heavy handed ending lands with a thud.
Overall, I think the Babadook is good for a horror film. If that sounds a bit like a backhanded compliment... Well, it is. There's a short list of things that a horror film has to do well if it wants to be good, and the Babadook checks all of those off. As I said above, the sound design is creepy; Amelia's somber looking house is a smartly chosen set; the cinematography does a good job of creating atmosphere. Unfortunately, the Babadook falls short on some of the things you have to do well if you want to be a great movie. It gets a little cheesy at times, and its central metaphor is strictly freshman year of college level symbolism. This movie didn't scare me enough that I'm going to lose any sleep over it - but it did give me the creeps enough that it's an easy recommendation.