Film: The Babadook
Director: Jennifer Kent
Primary Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West
US Release Date: 28 November 2014
As with my post on Stoker, I am combining a typical review with a little bit of analysis. As a result, a section near the bottom contains spoilers. It is marked with ****, so that you can avoid it if you haven’t seen the film.
Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, The Babadook is a horror film that follows Amelia (Davis) and her 6-year-old son Sam (Wiseman). Amelia is a widow and has been since her husband died in a car accident as he was driving her to the hospital to deliver their son. Since her husband’s death, Amelia has raised Sam on her own, and the years since his birth have clearly taken a toll on her by the time the film begins.
The Babadook quickly establishes Sam as an odd child. His behavior is erratic, and he often gets in trouble at school. He also has a tendency to frighten other children, and he spends a good deal of his time building mechanical weapons, which are meant to protect his mother from a monster that he fears will come to hurt her.
Sam is also so afraid of monsters (and is so worried for both his and his mother’s safety) that he rarely sleeps through the night, and this often leaves Amelia exhausted and on-edge.
One night, Sam asks his mother to read him a story, and she instructs him to pick one off the shelf. He chooses a rather strange-looking pop-up book called Mister Babadook, which tells the story of monster that never stops tormenting its victims once they see it. Amelia is clearly upset by the book and tells Sam to put the story out of his mind. Sam, however, becomes convinced that the Babadook is in their home with them. Eventually, Amelia is forced to agree with him.
The last widely lauded horror film that I watched was It Follows; however where that film doesn’t quite live up to the hype surrounding it, The Babadook does. I don’t watch as much horror as I might like, but I am certainly glad that I watched this film. It’s definitely a genre film; regardless, it’s by no means ordinary. The Babadook meets certain expectations, but it does so in inspired, intelligent ways. At the same time, the film also subverts and reshapes what viewers might think (or think they know) about horror films featuring women and children. In her directorial debut, Kent demonstrates that she is a force to be reckoned with. Not only is The Babadook terrifying in its own way, it’s also a well-written, and meticulously crafted piece of cinema.
Two of the most remarkable things about The Babadook are its two central characters. While The Babadook’s plot may venture into the realms of (very dark) fantasy, there is a great deal of reality in Kent’s script. Amelia and Sam both come across as complex, burdened, and complete individuals. There is also a great deal of reality in Davis and Wiseman’s performances. In fact, Davis’s work in the film is some of the best I’ve seen from an actress in recent months. As the depressed, grieving, and incredibly exhausted single mother Amelia, Davis is brilliant, and her performance never feels over-the-top either. (Instead, it feels appropriate).
The way that The Babadook treats its central characters is also crucial to its success. The film boasts some real emotional heft. Kent takes her time with her characters—before introducing her monster, Kent develops Amelia and Sam’s personalities and establishes several important details about their relationship. Even when they are totally enveloped by their struggle with the Babadook, Kent doesn’t allow either of her film’s primary characters to stagnate either.
Another important aspect of the way The Babadook treats its characters is the fact that it does not condemn Amelia for her feelings or actions. Over the course of the film, Amelia grapples with a lot of negative— and sometimes violent—feelings toward her son. Amelia loves and cares about Sam, but there are also moments when she resents his very existence, sees him as nothing but a reminder of his father’s death, and is simply too mentally and emotionally exhausted to be nurturing. The film does not praise Amelia for such feelings, but it does recognize their validity (which probably has something to do with the fact that it was written and directed by a woman).
Because Kent both respects and adds detail to her characters as she does, viewers are much more likely to care about Amelia and Sam than they would be otherwise. This makes about every aspect of The Babadook‘s story more impactful than one might expect, and this is especially true for its horror.
In The Babadook, Kent demonstrates an impressive talent for establishing and maintaining tension. Amelia’s exhaustion seeps into the audience. Sam’s screams get under their skin. The Babadook doesn’t rely on cheap jump scares or graphic images to make an impact. It’s more mature than that. The film is frightening, but no single moment is particularly terrifying if viewed in isolation. The Babadook is scary, because it takes the time to develop characters worth caring about. It is also scary, because it understands that pervasive, unshakable dread and that the monsters that exist within are far more unsettling than mere shocking acts of violence.
Furthermore, The Babadook‘s limited and dreary color palette lends a distinctive look to the entire film while also working to support the atmosphere of tension that hangs over it. The limited color scheme—which is most noticeable in Amelia’s home—is reflected (and emphasized) in the Mister Babadook book that Amelia reads to Sam. By using similar colors in Amelia’s home and in the book, Kent establishes a connection between Amelia’s mental state—houses do tend to represent minds after all—and the Babadook well before viewers are likely to realize just how closely related Amelia and the monster are.
There is also something claustrophobic about the film that is sure to be felt by its viewers. The film includes a number of scenes that take place outside of Amelia and Sam’s home, but they all but evaporate once the Babadook is out in the open. Besides, even when Amelia and Sam do leave their home, at least one of them is always on screen, and the number of people that they are shown interacting with is noticeably small. Viewers of The Babadook may very well conclude that Amelia is someone who has felt suffocated by life ever since her husband died—after all, she is clearly uncomfortable when her son hugs her neck—and Kent’s film helps them to understand what that’s like.
On top of being a horror film, The Babadook is also a psychological drama, and it’s one that goes where other films don’t always dare to tread. The psychological battles at the heart of the film are many, but they are just about all related to the dark side of motherhood and to the incredible difficulty of life after loss. In fact, at its heart, The Babadook is primarily an exploration of depression and grief, and it’s a damn good one at that. For more on that, see the section below (it contains spoilers!).
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****Motherhood and a Monster That Doesn’t Die****
The Babadook is a mother vs. monster story, in which the monster isn’t really the mother’s child. Amelia may hate Sam at times, but that is not his fault. Early in the film, Sam’s strange behavior, his inability to get along with other children, and his insistence on the reality of monsters are all sure to make viewers suspicious of him. On top of that, Sam’s appearance (he has a pale complexion and his large eyes seem to see far too much) is sure to convince them that there is something off about him. But the longer The Babadook goes on, the clearer it becomes that while he is capable of seeing the monster before his mother is, Sam is not nearly as creepy as the first half of the film would have you believe. (In fact, he too is a victim of his mother’s demons).
The Babadook is structured in a way that all but ensures that viewers will identify with Amelia from the beginning. In doing so, they are also led to see Sam in a skewed light. He is not just Amelia’s son to them, he is also someone who sleeps where her husband used to. He is a child who is very much like his father, but who will never be him. He is a burden. And he is a source of great pain.
There is a shot early in the film that shows Amelia and Sam curled up in bed. In the shot, they are shown from above, and there is an almost unusual amount of space between them. This distance tells viewers a great deal about their relationship in a very short amount of time—it also tells them how to regard Sam. If Amelia would rather not be in the same bed as her young (and frightened) son, then surely there is something about him that should worry the audience.
But Kent’s film is not as simple as all of that. Amelia does have a strained relationship with her son, but that says more about her than it does him. That said, the fact that the film encourages viewers to sympathize and identify with Amelia before revealing that Amelia is probably more of a danger to her son than he is to her is hugely important, because it enables them to better understand her feelings. Amelia may hate Sam at times, and Sam may not deserve to be hated, but that does not make Amelia’s often negative feelings toward him any less real or valid. People may not like to talk about it, but it isn’t reasonable to expect a parent to like and enjoy his or her children all the time. This is especially true when the parent involved has recently suffered great loss that their child is always reminding them of.
Amelia had a child the same day that her husband died. She never had any time to herself to grieve or to process her devastating loss. As a single mother with a difficult child, she probably has had to devote nearly all of her time to Sam since the day he was born. And even when she is at work, she is taking care of others (she looks after the elderly in a nursing home). Instead of coming to terms with the tragedy she has experienced, Amelia lives in a state of denial (not until the end of the film can she speak her late husband’s name). Still, for 6 years, she manages to get by.
But Amelia’s existence is not sustainable. Eventually, she must face her demons, or be consumed by them, and Sam seems to realize this. Once the Babadook is in the house (and is in Amelia), Sam knows that the only way for her to triumph over it is for her to face it head on. At the end of the film, Amelia explains Sam’s absence from school by telling the officials “We needed some time to sort a few things out.” Amelia refuses to acknowledge the Babadook—and all the trauma, depression, anger, hatred, and grief that it can be said to represent— for so long that she is left with no choice but to deal with it or be destroyed by it (and destroy her son in the process).
Amelia does face the Babadook, but doing so is far from easy. It is both difficult and painful. In fact, it is so painful, that it’s virtually impossible to fault her for not doing it sooner. It is like pulling teeth (that Amelia pulls one of her own teeth shortly before her big showdown with the monster is no coincidence). It’s also important to note that Amelia does not face the Babadook on her own. Rather, she is only able to do so with the help of her son. Sam has not experienced all of the loss that Amelia has, but their traumas are intertwined. He has grown up in the aftermath of Amelia’s devastation, and it’s more than fitting that he help his mother finally find a way to process what she has been through. By helping his mother, Sam also demonstrates love, which reinforces the film’s claim that love is more than capable of existing where certain negative feelings also tread.
Amelia faces (and expels) the Babadook near the end of the film, but the monster does not die or disappear. Instead, it takes up residence in the very same basement where Amelia keeps all of her husband’s old things. Some viewers may wonder if Amelia’s acceptance of the monster’s existence (she even feeds it) is meant to indicate a certain failure on her part, but I am confident that this is not the case. The Babadook can be faced and controlled, but it cannot be gotten rid of. This is not Amelia’s fault. It is the nature of the beast.
This is because the Babadook is essentially an embodiment of Amelia’s loss, trauma, and depression. Nothing will ever undo any of the things that she has suffered, but she can (and does) find a way to live with their reality. To admit to feeling grief or some other dark emotion does not put an end to it, but recognizing such feelings does enable one to see them as separate from the rest oneself and to find a way to get out from under them. After facing the Babadook, Amelia can finally say her late husband’s name again, and she can also look at her son without seeing a monster or some tiresome burden, and that is most definitely a victory.
Watch The Babadook online.
Until Next Time
The Babadook is the kind of film that makes me want to explore the horror genre much further, so please let me know if you have any recommendations!
That’s it for now. As always, feel free to leave a comment below or to contact me on Twitter. Thanks so much for reading!