If it's in a word, or it's in a look, you can't get rid of the Babadook.
ActorsStarring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Tim Purcell, Hayley McElhinney, Cathy Adamek, Craig Behenna, Benjamin Winspear, Chloe Hurn, Tiffany Lyndall-Knight, Peta Shannon, Michael Gilmour, Michelle Nightingale, Adam Morgan, Barbara West, Hachi, Carmel Johnson, Terence Crawford, Jacquy Phillips, Pippa Wanganeen, John Maurice, Craig McArdle, Sophie Riggs, Stephen Sheehan, Alicia Zorkovic, Bridget Walters, Chris Roberts, Lucy Hong, Tony Mack, Annie Batten, Charlie Crabtree, Sophie Allan, Ethan Grabis, India Zorkovic, Lotte Crawford, Isla Zorkovic
A single mother, plagued by the violent death of her husband, battles with her son's fear of a monster lurking in the house, but soon discovers a sinister presence all around her.
Horror films, more often than not, are hinged on our primal fears. Death or dismemberment being brought down by mythological monsters or knife wielding psychopaths are such common sights that fans cheer them on. But what of the trauma? The fear of ourselves or our loved ones going mad? Often, as horror fans we forget that these are the truly challenging terrors of real life. Not the bodily damage, but what’s left in its wake. While the Babadook is nominally a monster movie, its makers understand this all too well. They also understand that the scream of a child can be just as unnerving as the roar of some blood-beast, if not more so.
This Aussie thriller, The Babadook, essentially follows the lives of troubled widow Amelia (Essie Davis) and her equally troubled son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Amelia’s husband was killed in a car accident while driving her to the hospital to give birth to Samuel and the event has stained both of them. Amelia is a mass of post-tramatic stress symptoms, unable to reconnect to society after dealing with such a traumatic event, really only living to dutifully take care of her son. The shock of her husband’s death lingers on seven years after the fact and her son is a constant reminder of his death.
Sam himself could have easily fallen into the cookie cutter mold of being a “cute HOLLYWOOD kid” but his trauma is also shown to be very deep. He knows his mother has emotionally cut him off, but isn’t mature enough to put that into words. So he spends his time learning magic tricks, building make-shift weapons, and worrying about the monsters that might lurk in the dark corners of their home. Oh and he also terrorizes other children. Even shoving his cousin out of a tree house at one point. All of this anti-social behavior leads to him being kicked out of school. House bound for the rest of the film.
This could have easily been a family drama about dealing with the death of a loved one. Davis is terrific as a single mother dealing with a clingy, unstable, child. Eventhough Sam’s constant howling rips into your ears and tests your nerves, it does put you into Amelia’s shoes. You also do feel for Samuel. Wiseman is a great young actor who never allows Sam to devolve into being a one-dimensional pain in the ass. Both are great character studies, but as I said, this is ultimately a monster movie and boy, when the Babadook comes a callin’ look out.
The titular beastie first makes it’s presence known through a mysterous pop-up book. The book is just one of many great examples of top notch art direction on display here. Looking like the hellish union of Clive Barker and Dr. Seuss, the book summons up the Babadook from. . . well, they never quite make that clear. But once he’s out, he starts to crop up everywhere.
The design of the Babadook is wonderfully minimal, owing much to silent movie villains. Director Jennifer Kent, never quite allows you to get a full look at him. He’s often just out of the corner of your eye. It’s a nice touch, one that will remind many viewers of being a small child and being sure the Boogyman is hiding somewhere in your darkened home. It’s a wise choice that makes the creature more effective when you do get a glimpse of him.
Once the Babadook is mentioned by name, both Sam and Amelia slowly start obsessing with the monster. Which is where the real terror of this movie kicks in. Both mother and child need each other, but as their mental health falls apart, they are pitted against each other. Anyone who has ever dealt with mental illness in any fashion will no doubt find these scenes very hard to watch. At times the movie is asking you to endure it, rather than be entertained, almost daring you to keep watching.
Even flitered through the safe confines of fantasy, this movie forces us to take a long hard look at what we could be in our worst moments. It’s not a pleasant sight. Top hatted phantoms might be scary, but madness is far scarier.
Which might be the film’s one major flaw. So much is handled through metaphor, that many elements of a traditional narrative is lost. Since I am a long time horror fan, I find myself asking the typical questions of “why” and “how.” The Babadook seems to come from a position that it’s a waste of time to wonder where monsters come from. Which only makes it’s ending all the more frustratiting if you look at it as pure narrative. In the end, the film asks us to cage our monsters both literally and figuratively. It’s not overly concerned with how the monsters got there in the first place. It just barely offers us a way out of our harrowing journey.
The film ends the only real way it could have ended, but it still left the traditionalist in me wringing my hands together in annoyance. But maybe that was the point all along? The filmmakers attack their finale with such a confidence, I’m hard pressed to disagree.
It would be very easy of me to dismiss the Babadook as “arthouse horror” and be done with it. But I won’t fall into that trap. It’s a worthy fright flick that got under my skin, which I assure you is no easy task. I think this a film best watched in a group, with the lights turned low. With plenty of time for debate and discussion afterwards.