The Babadook: Take a look, it’s in a book
Horror movies rarely resemble true nightmares. It is possible for a film to be sufficiently scary with enough frightening stimuli. But to make us feel trapped and bewildered? To not simply frighten, but shake the ground beneath our feet? That is the sort of horror that I remember most a week later, when I’m awake late at night.
The Babadook is being marketed as a demonic funhouse thriller, akin to The Conjuring. The two films bear little in common, however. The Conjuring used a grab bag of old-school horror tricks to create a very scary thrill ride. It knew its audiences wanted a good time, and it delivered. The Babadook is frightening. But while The Conjuring left me giddy with post-scare endorphins, The Babadook left me trembling in its wake. Most horror gives the audience enough enough distance to remain oriented even as the protagonist is running dizzy for their life. But The Babadook puts its two protagonists; a woman named Amelia (Essie Davis) and her 6 year old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman); through a brutal fight for their sanity and their lives, and it makes the audience feel every blow.
The Babadook occupies a space somewhere in between We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Exorcist. All three films are about mothers driven to their breaking points with the realization that something is unnaturally wrong with their children. The difference lies in the types of evil the films deal with. Kevin in We Need to Talk About Kevin is an evil person, pure and simple. Regan in The Exorcist is an innocent child who has been possessed by an evil spirit. But both films are primarily about the brutal tests their mothers endure for the children’s sakes. I think people forget that The Exorcist spends more time on Ellen Burstyn running her daughter through every medical and psychological test available than on the exorcism itself, which only comprises the final act.
Like both of these movies, The Babadook begins with a mother sapped of resolve, caring for a son whose needs seem beyond her capabilities. Whatever problems they are suffering at the beginning of the film will soon be dwarfed by the events that unfold. Where The Babadook falls on the Kevin–Exorcist scale depends on whether or not those events are caused by the evil spirit of the film’s title. I won’t spoil the film by answering that question here. More to the point, by the end of the film I was so drained it didn’t really matter.
The Babadook is surprisingly empathetic as descents into hell go. Endurance horror is usually aggressively cynical. Consider the nihilism of the French New Extreme films, like Martyrs and Inside. Both excellent movies, neither with so much as a whisper of hope. The Babadook starts off without a hint of horror at all; it is simply the story of a woman still grieving the loss of her husband and perhaps in over her head in trying to raise a son who needs more care than she can provide without support. That Amelia’s husband died in a car crash as he drove her to deliver Samuel at the hospital complicates her relationship with her son, to say the least. She has never emerged from the shadow of that day, and Samuel only now seems to realize that he has been living under it his whole life. Amelia reaches out to her sister, but gets no reciprocation. Her elderly next door neighbor loves her and Samuel, but she is frail and can only offer so much help. Amelia doesn’t seem to have any friends or deep relationships. Samuel isn’t doing too well at making friends himself. The one solace Amelia and Samuel have is their nightly bedtime reading.
This is a stage we’ve seen before. It is a versatile one. In another movie, Amelia and Samuel might make a friend or two to help them find stability. Or perhaps it would be a bittersweet story about the inherent struggles of being a single mom. This isn’t necessarily bedrock for a horror movie. Had I not known this film’s genre going in, I would have been surprised that it was a horror film. Most horror films telegraph their intent. The most common tactic is to open with a shocking sequence, to rattle the audience before beginning the plot. Consider the infamous first-person murder that opens Halloween. But there’s nothing to suggest that anything unnatural is afoot in the opening of The Babadook. This is not a happy family, but the goings-on are still firmly placed on a scale of normality. But when Samuel requests that Amelia read him a new book- titled “Mister Babadook- at bedtime, things begin to veer off the scale.
Let’s talk about the book that gives the movie its title. It provides some of the most frightening images in the movie. It is a pop-up book for the type of children who grow up into horror movie fanatics. When I was a child, I was a huge fan of Keith Moseley’s horror pop-up books (choice title: “Some Bodies In the Attic”). They were playfully gruesome but still very dark, confirming my suspicions that attics were places scary spirits and their skeleton friends gathered in their spare time. I imagine Moseley would recoil at the images within “Mister Babadook”. The book itself is crucial to setting the movie’s tone: the drawings within nudge across the line from spooky (say, Emily Carroll’s “His Face All Red”) to sinister (like Emily Carroll’s “Out Of Skin”)*
*By the way, please read all of Emily Carroll’s comics. She is brilliant.
After the first read through, Amelia considers the book to be too frightening for her son, but otherwise nothing unusual. Samuel initially reacts as children often do to frightening books, taking it completely seriously. He starts to see the demonic Mr. Babadook everywhere. His behavior worsens. He injures his cousin, throws tantrums that would test the patience of a saint. It’s the Babadook’s fault, he says. He starts bringing homemade weapons to school, and gets suspended. He needed them to protect himself and his mother from the Babadook, he says. Amelia, already at the end of her endurance when the film begins, starts to turn on her son. Understandable impatience and anger turns to shocking verbal cruelty. This could all still simply be a tale of familial woe. But we begin to wonder, just a bit, if that is too simple an answer. And that’s when the film hooks us and and refuses to let go.
The rest of the film deserves to be seen without being revealed. Writer and director Jennifer Kent is in astonishing command of this story. As darkness overtakes Amelia and Samuel’s lives, we are never sure whether or not it’s the doing of the Babadook, or simply their inevitable personal unraveling. Kent doesn’t cheat. There’s no “it was all a dream” obfuscation. She builds a completely believable world, introduces the possibility of otherworldly evil, and sets things into motion. We are in the same place as Amelia and Samuel. The possibility of the Babadook’s existence is no more frightening than the possibility that Amelia is simply falling to pieces.
Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman deserve far more plaudits than awards-givers will likely bestow on them. The movie rests on their performances, and they do far more than simply carry it. Davis finds every color on the gradient of exhaustion. I wondered how the hell she made it to the end of the movie, like a pitcher tossing a complete game on no rest. And Wiseman gives a performance of fearsome believability and energy. I grow weary of critics who dismiss child actors as simply being themselves on screen. It is a task for any actor of any age to stand up to this material and not just withstand it, but to be completely convincing.
Credit also goes to cinematographer Radek Ladczuk, production designer/art director Alex Holmes, and art director Karen Hannaford. The Babadook was filmed in sun-bathed south Australia, the film’s use of light and dark is essential to its tone. The outdoors aren’t much of a respite for Amelia and Samuel, but it’s a welcome diversion from their enclosed tomb of a home. The home becomes a character in itself. At one point, Amelia says to Samuel “we just need to get out of this house”, and I just about nodded in agreement. Without ever calling attention to the home in the usual horror movie way ( your usual dramatic exteriors and long shots down dark hallways), Kent instead slowly makes it feel claustrophobic.
The Babadook is one of the best films of this year, and yet difficult to recommend easily. You should see it if you want to see a superb movie. Just don’t expect a grand old time. It is a deeply unsettling experience, in a way that burrows deep and dies there. It is an assault on the most paranoid recesses of our minds. It wields empathy like a weapon; without such an understanding of its characters, it would not be nearly as effective. I actually hoped that Amelia and Samuel were under attack from a monster, and not simply caught in a personal death-spiral. I hoped, for their sakes.