The Babadook directed by Jennifer Kent
When the Australian horror film The Babadook was released here in the U.S. in November 2014, 10 months after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, it was moderately successful at the box office and received almost universal praise from the critics. Somehow, I managed to miss the film back then (I happen to miss most new releases, actually, in my quest to see as many great classic/old films on the big screen as possible at NYC’s several revival houses), but have wanted to see it ever since, especially inasmuch as the film holds an almost unprecedented 98% approval rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website! A recent showing on one of the Showtime stations has finally enabled me to catch up with this truly frightening picture, however; one that has grown into something of a cult item and cause célèbre since its release six years ago. I knew absolutely nothing about the film when I sat down to watch it the other night, had no idea what a “babadook” was, and felt a bit concerned about possibly not being able to follow those Aussie accents (a stumbling block for me in the past), but you know what? I found myself quite loving this marvelously scary and emotionally moving picture, and can now understand what all the fuss has been about. (And those accents, as it turned out, were not a problem here, either!)
As many others have already discovered, the film introduces us to a lonely widow named Amelia Vanek (remarkably well played by Tasmanian actress Essie Davis), a worker in a nursing home who lives with her 6-year-old son Sam (Noah Wiseman) in a suburb of Adelaide, in South Australia. We learn that on the day Sam was born, Amelia’s husband, Oskar (Ben Winspear), had been killed in a car crash while driving her to the hospital. Can you imagine? Now, as Sam’s 7th birthday/the anniversary of her husband’s death approaches, Amelia finds herself once again trying to subsume the pain. She has pushed away the grief and refused to deal with her loss over the years, we sense, and this state of denial will lead to horrific events as the film proceeds. Sam, we also see, is a child who lives in perpetual fear of monsters, even going so far as to cleverly construct weapons (such as dart throwers and rock catapults) against them. So it is perhaps not the wisest idea for Amelia to be constantly reading him horrific bedtime stories.
On this one night, she reads to him from a particularly disturbing pop-up book called Mister Babadook; a pop-up book that has popped up in the house from out of nowhere. The Babadook monster in this book is a singularly gruesome creature, a top-hatted figure with talons (supposedly based on the Lon Chaney character in 1927’s lost film London After Midnight) who will come to your house, after making itself known by thumps and knocks, make your life miserable, and eat your insides out! Shortly thereafter, Sam’s mania about the creature reaches a fever pitch, to the point where Amelia finds it necessary to sedate him. She tears the pop-up book to shreds and throws it away, only to find it reassembled and sitting on her doorstep one morning! Strange knockings and thumpings are heard in the house, she finds glass in her food, a roach infestation is discovered in her kitchen, and, in perhaps the film’s most chilling scene, the Babadook itself is seen at night, hovering on her bedroom ceiling. After many sleepless nights, Amelia begins to crack, and her personality begins to alter, as the audience wonders whether or not she is just irritable and exhausted, or if perhaps she is beginning to undergo a personality change; a possible possession. It is only when she begins to verbally and then physically threaten her son that the viewer understands that she has indeed been taken over by the Babadook, and that Sam’s suspicions about the entity have been correct all along….
The Babadook was the first full-length film by Australian director Jennifer Kent, based on her own short film of 2005, simply entitled Monster (this short film accompanies the longer film in its DVD incarnation, I’ve heard, and I would love to take a look at it one day), and most viewers, I have a feeling, will find it remarkable that Kent both wrote and directed the 2014 film, so very accomplished an effort is this debut. Kent’s script is a wonder, and her direction is very self-assured and stylish. Her film can be seen and understood on several levels, a fact that has apparently been the subject of lively debate during these past six years. On a surface and simpler level, we can see the Babadook as merely a monster that possesses Amelia and causes her to threaten her child. But on a deeper and more plausible level, the Babadook can be understood as the manifestation of Amelia’s repressed grief; of all the unresolved feelings that she has refused to deal with over the years. Not for nothing does the Babadook take the form of her deceased husband Oskar at one point; not for nothing is the monster ultimately shown to be impossible to slay, but only amenable to confinement. So yes, the film is much more than just another mindless monster movie. Kent has lots to say here about the mother/child relationship, about grief and its aftermath, and about how we move on in life after a tragedy. “I want to create a myth in a domestic setting,” Kent was quoted as saying after the film’s release, a statement that one can read as one wishes, regarding the Babadook’s being an actual monster or merely a manifestation of Amelia’s grief. Fortunately, the film works extremely well on either level.
And Kent is abetted here by a raft of very fine performances, particularly from her two leads. Little Noah Wiseman is very fine and affecting as the disturbed child Sam, and Essie Davis is just amazing as Amelia, giving an Oscar-caliber bit of thesping here in a portrayal that demands much of her. She makes us feel Amelia’s grief and loneliness just by the expressions on her face when she sees a happy couple necking in a car, or when she sits in her living room watching television by herself. Her Amelia is a beautiful woman, with a kind of Michelle Pfeiffer quality, but one who is beginning to look decidedly frayed by the cares and woes of her existence. Davis is equally compelling, however, when she starts to become possessed by the Babadook, and her foul-mouthed, threatening and ultimately murderous tantrums are really something to behold. It is a tremendous performance, truly, that runs the gamut of emotion, and Davis is fully invested in it.
The Babadook is a film with any number of startling moments that will leave the viewer slack jawed and chilled. Besides the aforementioned one, with the title creature hovering on the bedroom ceiling, we have the one in which Amelia yanks out one of her own teeth that had been paining her (a scene reminiscent of the one in 2006’s Bug, which I had recently watched); the scene in which Amelia loses control of her car, after it has been infested with cockroaches; the one in which she vomits black bile in a copious flood; the one with Oskar’s return; and really, the entire final half hour of the film, with Amelia and her son playing a cat-and-mouse game with each other throughout the house. And in a film with so much in the way of shocks and chills, how appropriate is it that Amelia, at one point, is shown to be watching, on her TV, one of the scariest scenes of all time, the one with the hideous hag in Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (1963)? William Friedkin, the director of the film that many consider to be the ne plus ultra of horror, 1973’s The Exorcist, has since gone on to declare, regarding The Babadook, “I’ve never seen a more terrifying film,” and that should tell you something right there. But of all the shocks and scares in the film, none can compare with the sight of Amelia, who we have seen to be a loving and caring mother, as she begins to transform into a hate-filled and homicidal creature, as the Babadook, the essence of her concentrated and undealt-with emotions, begins to overwhelm her. Could anything be more frightening than the sight of a once-loving parent changing into … something else? Fortunately for all concerned, Amelia is able to, uh, work through her issues, and confine the Babadook to a place where it can be controlled.
Kent’s film closes on a sweet and hopeful note, leaving the viewer trusting that the Vaneks will go on to enjoy a happy life, and that perhaps Amelia will find herself a boyfriend with her kindly coworker Robbie (Daniel Henshall). The film is surely left wide open enough for a possible sequel, which apparently the author’s fans have been clamoring for all these years, to Kent’s adamant refusal. And you know what? Perhaps it’s just as well to leave things as they are, with the Babadook safely tucked away where it can do no harm….