Horror movies thrive on ambiguity. They want to keep you on your guard, not just uncertain about what is going to happen, but often also uncertain about what is actually happening. A good horror movie twists and surprises, not just with a cheap jump scares, but also by turning the plot in an unexpected direction.
Oculus and The Babadook are both horror movies with plenty of ambiguity. The Babadook manages to be subtle about it and maintains it until the very end, while Oculus just confuses the hell out of you for a while and then clears things up.
There is a weakness at the core of Oculus‘ plot, which revolves around a malicious mirror. A brother and sister set out to observe and destroy the object that ruined their life. At first glance, it seems that a lot of thought went into their plan. Except they have a major, obvious blind spot. They experienced first-hand that the mirror can mess with the mind of anyone around it, yet they actively seek out a situation in which they can be manipulated by it. You still feel bad for them when things when things start to go sideways, but can’t help but go ‘well, duh’ at the same time. The movie is skilfully executed and the actors all give it their best, leading to something slick and entertaining, but it won’t really stick with you.
The Babadook is more layered and more memorable. It is about a single mother who is dealing – or rather not dealing – with the demise of her husband. Some blame for his death gets projected onto her son as it was a car accident on the way to the hospital for his delivery, that took the husband’s life. The kid is constantly acting up, sensing the weird dynamic between him and his mother, which strains their relationship even more. Things take a turn for the creepy when a macabre kids’ book turns up in the troubled duo’s home. Is there a monster on the loose? And is it an external one or an internal one? Part of the movie’s charm is that it may be a monster movie or a psychological thriller. The acting is very strong and the film is beautifully shot, keeping you unsettled and peering into the shadows.
Unlike Oculus, The Babadook doesn’t end on a clear note, extending the ambiguity beyond the credits. And you will be thinking about The Babadook long after Oculus has faded from your mind.