It’s a rare thing. A horror film that truly feels different. Fresh. Unusually deep. Jennifer Kent penned and directed The Babadook, an Australian film that on its surface deals with a mother who is struggling to deal with the loss of her husband, while also attempting to handle the behaviour of her young son who believes that a monster is lurking in their home. When you watch the film though, watching the story play out, you realise that there is a much deeper story at play here, dealing with issues that the horror genre seldom discusses.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widowed mother of a young boy named Samuel (Noah Wiseman) who lost her husband, Oskar (Benjamin Winspear), in a car accident when they were driving to the hospital for Samuel’s birth. Struggling to move on from the tragic events that left her without a husband and her son without a father, she works at a care facility for the elderly. Samuel, an anxious and imaginative child, is scared that there is a monster in the house named The Babadook, and he fears losing his mother. The Babadook itself comes into the tale through a storybook called “Mister Babadook”, a lingering and sinister saga that seems to warn of an impending menace. Regardless of Amelia reassuring Samuel and telling him that The Babadook doesn’t exist, he is convinced that he and his mother are in danger. Amelia’s sister, Claire (Hayley McElhinney), backs away from a relationship with her and Samuel, and so Amelia’s difficulty in keeping her situation under control begins to feel strain. With Samuel’s behaviour becoming harder to deal with due to his excessive reaction to the monster he believes is looming over him, Amelia seeks help from the doctor, receiving some sedatives for Samuel so that the two of them can get some sleep. With the stress on their relationship continuing, Amelia’s constant sticking-up for her son begins to wane, and her dislike for him grows. With a lack of sleep, and Samuel being out of school, Amelia’s mental state begins to deteriorate and she begins to see things. These dreamlike hallucinations, of sorts, include vivid and frightening images and Amelia struggles to differentiate between her reality and the haunting deliriums that she is experiencing.
Now, the monster in the film, the shadowy figure with claw-like-hands in which the film get’s its intriguing title, is only a small part, visually, of the film. The fairytale-esque design of The Babadook itself fits in wonderfully with the realistic, grey and melancholy look of the movie, providing a nightmarish terror in the corners of rooms, inside wardrobes and under beds, that unseen presence that offers a tension to each scene. Really though, this is a film that talks about motherhood, grief and loneliness, showing the seclusion of mourning, and the difficulty of making everything feel normal when, deep inside, it really is far from it. Amelia, played with such a brilliant depth of emotional range by Essie Davis (The Slap), battles insomnia, longs for physical comfort and fights like Hell to keep her son on the straight and narrow. When the cracks begin to appear and her home begins to fall into the pit of despair that was dug by the shovel of losing her husband, she begins to break down, and watching her descend into a form of madness, becoming a monster herself, is equally terrifying and enchanting to see. Noah Wiseman, as Samuel, offers an anxious child that finds himself without friends and disliked by most who know him due to his torment at the hands of what he believes is a monster threatening him at every turn. The ways that Wiseman emotes the moments that would upset all kids, being bullied by his cousin, looked at like a “freak” by his aunt, all goes to bringing an undeniable compassion to Samuel. The indifference in the relationship between Amelia and Samuel is disconcerting and uncomfortable to watch in a way that mixes strangely well with the horror aspects of the tale. Showing a side of motherhood rarely seen, it makes us sympathise with both characters, willing them to find a way out of their desolation.
The Babadook himself, itself, is less a physical creature of horror cliche than it is a clawed, growling, shadowy metaphor for madness, for sorrow, and for the inability to let go of the misery that blackens the soul. It grows as the refusal to accept the tragic circumstance continues. The design is like a phantom from an old silent film, a lost image of a forgotten demon. The scenes in which Samuel and Amelia experience the visual embodiment of The Babadook are strong, and the storybook works fantastically alongside these scenes, itself offering a creepy moment or two in the film. It’s Amelia and Samuel, though, that we focus on for 95% of the film, watching as their life crumbles in so many ways, their doom getting bigger and bigger as we proceed.
There are likely going to be people that find themselves questioning whether or not this film is actually a “horror” film, because in many ways it transcends the genre, finding itself in various others at the same time. It isn’t gory and we don’t have a million and one jump scares that make us throw out drink over our shoulder. What we get here is a study of anguish and of the danger of allowing it to overtake your like, your family, your mind. There are a few bursts of subtle and dark humour here too, dialogue that still makes sense to the characters and the situations, yet offers us a chance to breathe, and laugh under our breath. The performances from all, even the smaller roles, are top notch, but Davis and Wiseman are obviously the workhorses of the film. Showing so much depth with their characterizations, dragging heartache out of their chests in such a curious and eerie way, is something I can honestly say I haven’t seen before. I’m not sure if some might find the slow moving story and long scenes which focus, for lengthy periods sometimes, on the emotive responses of our characters, to be “boring” or “slow”. There may also be a few who don’t find it “horror” enough, but for those who are willing to delve a little deeper and enjoy the unique experience of a character study like this, done in such a peculiar and enchanting manner, there is so much to enjoy, so much to be involved with, to read into, to interpret and conclude in your own mind. I liked that very much.
In a genre saturated by sequels of ghost films, full of cheap scares and trick tactics that make the viewer jump due to loud noises, by films that do the same as a hundred more, The Babadook is a welcome curiosity. A beautiful tension and atmosphere that we just don’t get too often these days, and performances of a much higher quality than horror films are used to presenting, this is one I recommend to anyone who is after something different, and something that is obviously not afraid to lurk on the uneasiness and depression that comes with loss, and the rot that occurs when darkness lurks for too long in a household. The best horror film of 2014. It’s not even close.