Kids, eh? Who’d have ‘em?! If they’re not screaming their heads off or injuring themselves or others, the monsters from their nightmares are trying to kill you.
In the film bearing its name, the babadook is a creature that feeds on fear. Initially you can’t see it, but the more you deny it, the stronger it gets. Jennifer Kent’s film has operated in much the same way. It built buzz at film festival screenings, with audiences proclaiming it a masterpiece. Deny the buzz, and it only gets more insistent. But now, it arrives; we are face-to-face with the beast. Can we deny it any longer?
Here’s what’s undeniable: The Babadook is one of the smartest horror films to come along in quite some time. It is scary, but the scares are not the be all and end all. Yes, it has a potential scream queen protecting a vulnerable child from a big beastie but, first and foremost, The Babadook is a treatise on grief. A beast in itself, grief can isolate, incapacitate and even destroy a person. That is no less than what happens here, as two grieving souls confront something threatening them from within.
The film opens on a close-up of Amelia (Essie Davis). The setting suggests she’s in a car. The glass flying all around suggests she’s in a car crash. Indeed, we learn this was the night in which her son was born and her husband was killed in that crash. Cut to six years later, and young Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is driving Momma crazy. He’s full of shrill energy, and obsessed with monsters and magic. Young newcomer Wiseman is a fine fit for the role; he’s necessarily annoying, but her comes into his own when Amelia begins to believe in some of the fantasies he’s concocted. In a brave move, writer-director Kent plays with the conventional mother-child relationship as glimpsed in most horror films. Whether because of his father’s death or his continuous talent for annoyance, Amelia is clearly resentful of her son. He is a perpetual fright; with wide-eyed energy and a tendency to ask the wrong question at the wrong time, the viewer occasionally finds itself on Amelia’s side. Why can’t he just sit down and be quiet?! This tension, cruel as it may seem, is crucial to The Babadook’s success. Both mother and son are going through a prolonged grieving period, with Samuel asking questions aplenty about the father he never knew. Amelia’s sadness, coupled with child-induced insomnia, combine to leave a broken woman. As Amelia, Davis is the beating heart of the film. At first, Amelia’s barely holding her life together, but she eventually proves both admirable in her devotion to her son, and terrifying as she succumbs to the will of something she can fight, but she can’t altogether control. Enter the babadook.
In a desperate bid to lull Samuel to sleep one night, Amelia reads him a bedtime story. She finds a copy of a book in his bedroom bookcase, a pop-up book entitled ‘Mister Babadook’. Everything about the book, from its blood-red cover to the creature’s shape, screams bad news. Initially, Amelia’s reading only leads to a great punchline for the audience, but it’s what happens in the nights that follow that really unsettle. The first visible appearance of the babadook itself is a child’s worst nightmare poured on celluloid. He evidently shares a couturier with Freddy Kreuger and the creeper from Jeepers Creepers. He can crawl, glide or just stand still; it doesn’t matter because he/it is just an unknowable evil. He can invade homes, and even films. A sleep-deprived Amelia sees the babadook on a late-night TV screening of Méliès’ Trip To The Moon. It’ll get a smile from the film nerds, before another glimpse of the creature finds us unawares once again.
As is the way of these things, the creature wants the boy, and Amelia must be the vessel for this evil. It plays with tropes of possession and haunted houses (Alex Holmes’ production design is full of dour colours and period details), but the film works best as a struggle between unconditional love and inconsolable grief. There is no signposted victor, and the ending is left open to a surprising degree of interpretation, which may vex some horror purists. Then again, The Babadook isn’t just a horror. It’s an emotionally-charged portrait of the grieving process; it just happens to be bloody scary into the bargain.