Jennifer Kent’s first feature-length film, The Babadook, is that elusive combination: a horror film and a compelling psychological thriller that’s shocking without being campy, that makes you hide under a blanket one moment, then ponder your own subconscious the next.
It caters to thrill-seekers who want to be entertained and ultimately frightened, and to intellectuals interested in an analytical approach to the treatment of death.
Best of all, it’s interesting; on every level, a cinematic experience worth the price of the ticket.
Amelia (Essie Davis), a single mother plagued by the memory of her husband’s death years ago, struggles to raise her restless six-year-old son, Sam (Noah Wiseman). Sam’s fear of monsters is real and obsessive, and it compels him to bring homemade (yet dangerous) weapons to school, which earns him an expulsion. When an exhausted and defeated Amelia offers to read Sam a bedtime story in hopes of getting a decent night’s sleep, Sam chooses a mysterious pop-up book from the shelf called ‘Mister Babadook’. Upon reading the story, Amelia unleashes the spirit of the Babadook, which pursues and torments the household with its relentless promise: “If it’s in a word, or in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” The Babadook is a silhouette of a man in a top hat; he’s that childhood monster waiting for you in your closet or under your bed, ready to pounce as soon as your parents tuck you in.
The premise is not terribly complex or original, and the outcome is more or less revealed off the bat, in the storybook itself: a foreshadowing series of pop-up images and creepy rhymes rather bluntly presaging the trouble to come. It is the curse’s drawn-out progression that will have you biting your fingernails. Moreover, the mother’s denial of it is painfully futile. The stress that combination provokes in the viewer is remarkable.
But any filmmaker using suspense as a tool can make a stressful film. The Babadook also manages to bother you deeply in its distortion of social norms. Amelia and Sam don’t have a healthy mother-son relationship, likely because Sam’s father died in the car ride on the way to the hospital when Amelia was in labor. So, many of the family dynamics are disturbingly off-putting. A parent should not feel irritated by a child’s display of affection, but Amelia is repeatedly overwhelmed by Sam’s desire to embrace her. Similarly, a young child should not feel the need to protect a parent, a burden Sam vocalizes throughout the film.
Amelia is weak, and represses anguish, rather than facing it. Like the loss of her husband she’s never really accepted, or the toothache she maddeningly refuses to have treated, she simply attempts to ignore the Babadook, which of course cannot be ignored. The Babadook is a toothache from hell.
So, when the monster begins to haunt them, Sam actually has a better grip on the situation. He reacts in a disturbingly mature fashion, while his mother deals with it by taking sleeping pills.
Even before the Babadook storyline comes into play, both Amelia and Sam are established as anguished characters, with demons of their own. An introductory slow-motion dream sequence shows Amelia in labor during a car accident. A muffled voice calls to her and when she wakes, a trembling Sam appears before her bed: “Mommy! I had the dream again.”
The Babadook is a film about facing atavistic fears, and the fact that there are no short cuts to recovery.
You can’t get rid of the Babadook, and you certainly can’t ignore it.
The Babadook is showing at Cinema du Parc
An avid film-goer and passionate cook, Maxine Napier Macdonald received a BA from McGill University last spring.