By now, my readers have begun to understand that I’m a traditionalist when it comes to horror. My strict requirement for a horror film to be good lies solely on how well it delivers the jump-scare, my latest favourite being the Itseries. While I am persistent about the way I want horror to be, I am also aware of the guileless obstinance of this idea, because cinema can never stagnate or it’ll just become dull. In all honesty, Australian films almost never catch my attention, and apart from Mad Max: Fury Road, I don’t really cross the South Pacific Ocean to discover what the Aussies have in their Hollywood stores. So, imagine my surprise when 2014’s The Babadook shows up amongst my Netflix suggestions one day and gives a compelling reason as to why horror is not just about jump-scares. Horror is about what terrifies you, and the nightmarish Babadook is a very good medium at that.
I adore children. I think that once children reach a certain age, that’s when they peak. Until then, they are vexatious little screaming assholes. Don’t get me wrong, I am without child (but two daughters please and thank you very much), and very far from having one. The Babadook is a good lesson on parenting as well, those bedtime stories seem to lose their appeal after seeing what the same thing does to Amelia and her son, Samuel. Through this film, Jennifer Kent creates a story that is both chilling and nauseating. Who better to show this aside from the ardent relationship between mother and son? As they forge on from page to page, the writing becomes more sinister and less appropriate for a bedtime story. Charlotte, my imaginary daughter, points out how curious the prose is, but her imagination brings the story to life, an indication that my child has not yet reached that “certain age”. Reluctantly, I continue reading the graphic text, hopeful that she’ll forget about the story tomorrow morning and tomorrow night’s bedtime story will be of a more sanguine nature. I guess it wasn’t such a bad idea to let her continue playing that car-racing game on the iPad.
The Babadook is a modern substitute for grim folklore. Leading up to the anniversary of her husband’s death, the depressed and emotionally drained Amelia begins to sense a disturbing presence stalking her and her son, Samuel, after reading a mysterious children’s book known as “Mister Babadook”. What’s immediately striking about this film is the persistent ambiguity. As a horror film, its macabre and carnivalesque temper come off as a very frightening lullaby. Unconventionally stylized, this film did not sit well with my traditional horror outlook. Its unorthodox departure from traditional dramatic scares and generic imagery is replaced with a much slower technique. Instead, The Babadook treats horror with more allegiance towards suspense, as it really challenges your emotional output more constructively. The entity takes up less than 5% of the screen time, whilst director Jennifer Kent focuses on implication rather than the obvious. What’s really effective is how inconspicuous the cinematography is. Each shot of the creature is imposed within a man’s subtlety, as its appearance plays/preys on our misinterpretation of darkness. We’ve all been in the situation where we woke up in the middle of the night and thought we saw a strange entity lurking at the corner of our door, prompting us to turn on the light to discover it’s only a coat.
Reading that book practically invites the Babadook into their home, and afterwards, Samuel starts blaming it for everything that is going wrong. Skeptical, it is only when impossible things begin to happen that Amelia realizes that Samuel is right. They undergo a myriad of classic scares and the most disturbing part is when the film foretells Amelia killing her own son. Sleep becomes a rarity, especially for the mother, as she battles between work and having to babysit two rascals; an autistic son and evil itself. I know for a fact that I become grouchy when I don’t get enough sleep, so I cannot blame Amelia for the Herculean tasks put before her. Slowly but surely, the entity takes over Amelia but I guess a mother’s love is too much for evil to handle. In a flurry of insanity, Amelia finally manages to eject the monster from her body, locking Mr. Babadook in the basement.
Metaphorically, the film is shot with the same skepticism in mind. Since we are the audience, we know that this is a horror film so we can expect the abnormal. Amelia and Samuel don’t. The composition of each character and object is on the verge of our peripheral vision, rather than being in our POV. You’ll think you saw something in the corner of your eye and before you know it, the film cuts to the next shot. Despite there being no significant jump-scares, the film still manages to make you jump at the sight of a mirrored claw in the darkness. Things seem to go back to normal afterwards and Amelia and Sam prepare for Sam’s seventh birthday party, which was never celebrated due to the fact that it is the same day as the death of Sam’s father. The Babadook is a constant battle between belief and disbelief, between moving on and brooding. I don’t believe that a mother can inherently hate her child, but it’s safe to say that Amelia associates being a widow with her son. Of course, it’s not exactly Samuel’s fault, though you can definitely empathize with Amelia for wanting to shut the annoying ass kid up.
I’ll wager with you, I’ll make you a bet. The more you deny, the stronger I get.
The metaphor is simple to understand. The Babadook exists whether you like it or not, and it comes down to how much Amelia allows the entity to control her. The more you discredit it, the stronger it gets. Only by confronting it, is Amelia able to control it, a simile suggesting that the only way she can overcome her grief of losing her husband, is by accepting the fact that her husband is dead.
The Babadook takes a lot of inspiration from German expressionism, namely Nosferatu dating all the way back from 1922 with its frozen stature and sinister claws highlighted in front. The imagery plays on your imagination through its slow yet exaggerated movement. The creature design is very vintage and its onscreen actions may do a lot to take people out of the moment because of its block-pose animation. It jumps around rather than fluency. It jumps around rather than having the ground movement you’d expect from a 21st century film. But it works within the context because the picture feels inhuman, making it feel like a larger threat and something that is ambiguously just in Amelia’s mind. It lingers around the setting like Cesar from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Thematically, since the film plays on psychology, you’re left questioning whether a fragment of Amelia’s fears and detachment are because of her copious amounts of stress. Like The Exorcist, The Babadook is a far more human story rather than simply setting up scares. The inherent skepticism that needs to be maintained in order to manipulate the audience’s sense of understanding. By giving doubt, you’re also creating a feeling of uncertainty, a natural human emotion that makes characters relatable.
I like it to an extent that I’d recommend it to my friends, but The Babadook is not groundbreaking cinema. It is an affirmation in horror that’s truly needed. There is a quirky oddity that you need to overcome in order to get on the same pages that fill them. However, once you do, it’ll keep turning, it’ll keep you thinking, and it’ll certainly keep you scared. In addition, I have to commend Essie Davis for her role as Amelia, since it takes a real mother to play this character. Finally, there remains a persistent chill of how daring the film is, to subvert your attention into the unknown, instead of the unremarkable.