There are certain things you just can’t get rid of; spam emails that return no matter how many times you’ve hit “unsubscribe”, distant relatives who insist on just how much you’ve grown since the last time they saw you in 1989, and The Babdook. But unlike obnoxious resends and relatives, you won’t want to get rid of The Babadook. In fact you might just invite it into your life, sit it down with a cup of tea and go on about just how original and deeply moving its recent film truly was – at least you could with director Jennifer Kent.
First time writer and director Jennifer Kent manages to take every expectation that accompanies a single-parenthood monster thriller film, and turn it on its head with an almost complete lack of creature reveals and senselessly gruesome instances of gore. It’s a monster movie in the sense that there is a looming figure plaguing main characters Samuel and Amelia’s life, but the subtly psychological approach Kent chose to take with the film is what makes it so truly scary.
The story setup is simple, and I would say that other than offering a foundation for the emotional status of mother and son, is relatively ancillary in that it’s the aftermath that really matters. A tragic car accident has left Amelia (Essie Davis) as a single mother to overactive, codependent son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). After a mysterious pop-up storybook turns up, strange instances begin happening in the family’s life that eventually develop to be a paranormal entity known as The Babadook.
The story’s base structure is reminiscent to other child horror films, in that it involves an over-stressed parent whose trust in their own abilities, as well as in their child, has been worn thin by the struggles they face in a burdened life. The terrors that The Babadook cause Samuel are perceived at first as a child’s acts of misbehavior, his emotional response to the loss of his father at such a critical point in development. These actions only serve to deepen Amelia’s growing distaste for overbearing Samuel, which compounds with her own emotional decline as a result of loss and single-parenthood.
It’s in this dark and charged environment that the story shifts, and The Babadook begins to prey on Amelia, rather than Samuel. The damage has already been done, and in her weakened state Amelia is a prime victim, all but inviting The Babadook directly into her life. It is now up to Samuel to take the support role, but he is helpless to do much more than protect himself now that his mother has become the monster that he initially feared.
The Babadook figure itself is entirely unimportant; in fact, Kent could have left this simply as a film in which an over-worked, depressed mother is driven to a point of insanity that leaves her with a blood-lust for her own child, and it would have stood fine on its own. It’s the psychological implication behind the entire film that matters; the monster is a support character at best. If Kent had taken a Blair Witch Project approach and avoided the reveal of The Babadook at all, the film might have left viewers questioning whether it even existed, or if it was in fact just a manifestation of Amelia’s inevitable emotional demise.
Regardless, the film’s cinematography is looming and attentive to artistic detail, which strengthened the elusive beauty of the story itself. The Babadook storybook is playful yet terrifying, dark yet strangely charming. It draws its viewer in just to drive them away with its eventual horror. Its impact is lasting, and the poetic wording sticks in your head; which is horrific when you get to its sinister end.
The movie plays with trust, in the sense that it earns it just to turn around and tear it away. The viewer starts with a trust for Amelia, and ends trusting only Samuel. Likewise, at first there is a sense of curiosity in The Babadook that quickly transitions to an embedded fear. It’s a tactic that leaves you questioning the story until the very end, which is fantastic. It requires a solidarity in character that would be immensely hard to pull off, but Davis and Wiseman deliver the necessary performance almost too perfectly.
Davis is able to communicate Amelia’s emotional decline so well that it’s hard not to think she’s a broken mother who meets a grim end. Even more impressive though, was Wiseman’s portrayal of a strange, hyperactive, traumatized child. There were times during the film that I wanted to step in and slap the screaming child that clearly cried out for structure and support, and there were other times that I wanted to hold him in my arms and shield him from the evils of the world. As a first-time actor with no previous professional experience, Wiseman did an almost unnaturally good job of taking the viewer through Samuel’s side of the story. His ability to showcase such complex emotions in such a moving way entirely eclipse his young age.
The Babadook is a story that makes you afraid to have kids, or afraid for your kids if you already have them. It brings into question the psychology behind single-parenthood, and how to cope with an abnormal child. It’s a reflection on loss and depression, with The Babadook monster acting as a representation of Amelia’s degradation. As her status declines, The Babadook becomes more powerful. And inversely, the farther away from herself she moves, the more Samuel develops into his own identity.
It’s a horror movie that transcends the genre, going far beyond the cheap scares and loud base-drop I’ve come to expect as tactics of films today. It’s an emotional journey of mother and child; a development and decline that parallel one another, and interchange in unexpected ways. What has potential to be a deeply subjective tale of a mother’s murderous breaking-point, hides insidiously behind the mask of a monster film in a way that is just disturbing enough to keep viewers curious, without the overzealous gore-core that might serve to push them away.
It’s a solid story, supported by strong characters with skillful direction. Beyond being just inherently scary, The Babadook has a lasting effect on the viewer; a slow-burn stoked by mystery and relatability. As a movie it’s great, but as a horror movie it’s fantastic, truly one of the best of our time.
And just in case you need a bit of comic relief after watching such a grim tale, How The Dook Stole Christmas is worth a quick 45 seconds playthrough: