“It wants to scare you first… then you’ll see it.”
I spent some time considering whether The Babadook actually knows what an intelligent film it is. A horror movie by first time feature director Jennifer Kent, the suspicion was that this film could simply be a fluke; with its best parts coming together by accident, the in-depth interpretations that critics would later read into it being only a fabrication of their overactive minds. We have, after all, been accused of such things before.
But these suspicions quickly evaporate on a second viewing – if there’s any film released this year that deserves one, it is surely The Babadook. Digesting its numerous thematic components and underlying subtext in one sitting is, as I’ve come to conclude, nigh on impossible. Yet that first viewing does at least give you the impression that you’re watching something very different from any typical horror movie you may have seen recently.
The differences begin right from the opening shot, which focuses not on setting up some threatening scenario or mysterious enemy to plague our victims throughout the film, but on a close-up of main character Amelia, as she has a flashback to a car accident. No details other than her facial expressions – which show a woman who would rather absorb her shock than let it loose in loud shrieks – are shown. It is hinted that this dream sequence is a recurring one, as Amelia soon rises and nonetheless continues about her lifestyle undeterred. Such an inconspicuous opening sets a perfect tone for the rest of the film.
Perhaps what may surprise you most about the opening third of The Babadook is that it doesn’t actually feel like much of a horror film at all. It shows the daily life of Amelia and her 6-year-old son Samuel, surviving together after the death of their husband/ father on the night of Samuel’s birth. Amelia’s mild-mannered demeanor is offset by her son’s hyperactive personality. As she struggles to balance home life with her day job at a care home for the elderly, Samuel’s behavior becomes more erratic, and he builds weapons to protect them both from the monster that haunts his frequent nightmares.
Had it stopped there, the film would have been a fascinating study of the unique domestic struggles that single mothers and lone children can face after the unexpected death of a spouse. But The Babadook goes much further, introducing a seemingly innocuous yet curious children’s book out of which emerges an evil presence that begins haunting Amelia and her son.
Essie Davis (Amelia) and Noah Wiseman (Samuel) play the superbly acted two leads. For a six year old in his first role, Wiseman gives an incredibly accomplished performance, even more so when it gets to the more difficult scenes in the latter part of the film, as Amelia begins a descent into madness that somewhat echoes Jack Torrance in The Shining (1980).
Comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s classic horror film are justified, to an extent. Indeed, what Jennifer Kent manages to get out of her actor’s powerful performances – portraying Amelia as an honestly flawed mother and Samuel as an occasionally irritating child – recalls Kubrick’s style of direction. Certain camera shots and an underlying theme of sexual repression also feel reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), while the general mood and theatrical style of the Babadook creature’s design references old silent movies such as Nosferatu (1922). Though in reality these favorable likenesses still ultimately fall short of conveying The Babadook’s true qualities.
The meaning of ‘Mister Babadook’ (the force that haunts Amelia and Samuel with increasing intensity) is intentionally left open-ended. Why it’s here, where it came from and even what it is, are all questions to which the answers are hinted at through various narrative techniques rather than spoon-fed to the audience. This is not to say the film hides the creature of its title from you – there is enough revealed to scare you very much, and if you’re willing to invest your attention in the little details of The Babadook’s mise-en-scene, it will scare you all the more.
Having said that, I’m reluctant to emphasize the horror elements of this film, if only because the genre comes with a certain stigma attached to it that does some of its classics a great injustice, not least The Babadook. Primarily this film does not set out to scare you with monsters jumping out of the closet or from under the bed (as Amelia and Samuel themselves reference when checking these hiding places near the start of the film). Fear is merely something you may feel as a result of the story it tells, almost like a bonus that accompanies what is really an insightful glimpse into the workings of the human mind.
It is an immensely hopeful story in the end; one that is about learning to cope and live with your personal demons rather than thinking you must always defeat them. At no point does The Babadook insult your intelligence, nor does it ever threaten to become pretentious in its high-mindedness.
My only concern is that it will not receive the appreciation it deserves from those casual audiences who have been spoiled by simple jump scare tactics in most other modern horror stories. That would be a real shame, because for me Jennifer Kent’s debut feature is not just the best horror movie of the past decade. It is, quite simply, one of the greatest ever made.
10 / 10