The Babadook proves the age-old adage about non-American horror films: they are always better. Armed with a silly, although intriguing title, the movie plays on our most innate fear, the fear of the dark. It does so in the disguise of a children’s story, a monster named the Babadook who externalizes the main character’s psychology.
Essie Davis plays Amelia, a widowed mother stuck with the hardships of raising a disobedient fanciful child. Knowing her previously as the lead in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, she is particularly outstanding in The Babadook. She portrays Amelia’s slow descent into madness with a slight touch of melancholy.
The movie begins six years after the death of Amelia’s husband. Her life has become an endless routine that consists of watching over her turbulent son Samuel and managing her shifts at a retirement home. Samuel is prey to a fanciful mind, imagining monsters to exist around the house and preparing makeshift weapons to fight them. Every night, he wakes his mother after a nightmare and she must indulge him with a bedtime story.
As fatigued as she is, Amelia nonetheless obliges. It is impossible not to sympathize with her. Davis successfully creates a woman detached from her surroundings. Her obligations towards her son are carried out with a bare minimum of affection; her gestures are that of an automaton. She needs a break, but it is simply impossible to afford for a woman in her situation. Director Jennifer Kent illustrates Amelia’s loss of her joie de vivre through melancholy shots of her daily life, especially in scenes of her sitting alone in front of the television. Every time the television program displayed is a show or movie from the 1950s, which really contributes to create the film’s intemporal mood.
It happens one night, after Samuel requests another story. This time, he brings a book. The title, The Babadook, is intriguing enough. There are no authors listed. Amelia is suspicious, but proceeds to read it anyway. Kent hired illustrator Alex Juhasz to create this new monster. His work strikes a perfect balance between the traditional children’s story picture and the uncanny illustration of the Gothic. In a sense, the book itself is an uncanny object, a puzzling mix of something innocent tinted with darkness. Let us not forget the opening words:
“If it’s in a word or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”
Amelia’s life, already trying as it is, is about to get worse. Just like your average horror film heroine (it is a horror film after all, so one must not expect a large deviation from the norms) Amelia does not believe at first. It’s a children’s story, which her very fanciful child happens to readily take seriously. Given his overactive imagination, she disregards Samuel’s warnings.
But the Babadook is relentless. She hears noises around the house, has strange nightmares about a dark shape looming above her—a shape that resembles the illustration of the Babadook. Her home has turned hostile, mirroring the approach of this entity. Yet, the Babadook’s power can only work if one allows him in, something that Samuel warns her against. As the movie goes on, it becomes clear that his power runs alongside Amelia’s grief for her late husband. The house and its domesticity (which are traditionally attached to the woman) are figurative expressions for her mind. As she increasingly allows herself to dwell on the tragedy of her husband’s loss, the Babadook reach over her household expands.
Kent thus produces a psychological horror film that explores the consequences of grief, especially in women who are left to deal with the aftermath of a husband’s death. Their confinement in the house speaks of her impossibility to forget. The Babadook is therefore a physical manifestation of this inability. Not only does it affect her, but it also has an impact on Samuel. He is a victim of that never-ending grief too.
The film’s ending has a return to normality… with a little twist of course. As the story states, you can’t get rid of the Babadook. But you can tame it and learn to live with it. Amelia has relegated the monster to the basement (where she stores her late husband’s stuff) where it would remain out of reach. Although omnipresent, like the painful memories of her husband’s death, it no longer has the same power over her. He does not loom above her in her room, but is locked away beneath them. This ending is as figurative as it gets, but it is also unexpected.
In conclusion, The Babadook is a most needed movie for the horror addict, but also for any cinephile. Although the child is unbearably annoying (I suspect it is a plot device to help us sympathize more with the mother), it navigates the mother and son relationship in the most touching ways. Though the horror is a significant part of the narrative, it is Amelia’s state of mind (and Essie Davis’ acting) that captivates. To see it evolve through the lens of a monstrous entity liked the Babadook is not only frightening, but also enlightening.
featured photo from staticguim