Stephen David Miller

Startup cofounder, AI researcher, podcaster, person, etc.

Review: The Babadook

When I was fifteen, I saw The Grudge in theatres. The Ring had been a huge success two years earlier, and lesser imitators started cropping up; a sort of arms race developed over how many traumatic visuals directors could cram into two mediocre hours. One friend walked out and we all teased him for it, but he’d understood something important: torturing yourself for torture’s sake isn’t brave, it’s stupid. When you’ve got class in the morning and you’re afraid a pale woman with a droopy jaw will make frog noises at you if you close your eyes, there’s not much solace in the “fun of it”. I learned my lesson, and have avoided horror films ever since. No shame. Life’s too short to be miserable.

Recently The Babadook, a low-budget Australian debut, dropped on iTunes. Almost immediately it went from total unknown to critical darling, with a 98% on RottenTomatoes and William Friedkin (of The Exorcist)’s label as “the scariest film [he’s] ever seen.” I still hate being scared, but this one seemed worth the risk. After putting it off all week, I finally made the purchase and braced for impact.

Maybe a decade without horror movies has left me with unrealistic expectations, and now I’m just a crotchety old man who thinks all music is ripping off Dylan. But I was underwhelmed, and — being the same person who got nightmares from Minority Report (true story) — surprisingly unafraid. Not that it wasn’t good: it’s a solid entry in a genre known for camp. It just didn’t tread any new ground. A timid single mother lives in a dark house (The Others) with an outsider child who claims to see things which aren’t there (The Sixth Sense). One day a piece of entertainment appears (The Ring) foreboding the arrival of Mr. Babadook, a man with a top hat and finger knives (do I need to say it?) Terror ensues. Great acting, Coraline-creepy art direction, an emphasis on the psyche, and a refusal to go for cheap jump scares gave it a promising start. But it eventually devolves into more over-the-top fare, leaving whiffs of better films (Carrie, The Shining) in its wake. War-torn critics might call that a refreshing throwback after years of trashy-horror PTSD, but I don’t see what all the fuss is about. It’s pretty decent, but nothing new.

Chris and I discuss my general wimpy-ness and argue over the merits of the film at:

See my review on Letterboxd