I have a love/hate relationship with horror movies. On the one hand, I find a well-told spooky story captivating (I own a small library of Stephen King novels). On the other hand, I’m a bit of a chicken when it comes to things that go bump in the night. Still, it’s Halloween, which means that – chicken or not – it’s time for me to revisit a classic horror movie. So here, I’m going to take a look back at 2014’s The Babadook – a spine-chilling modern classic that’s also a disarming meditation on grief and motherhood.
The Babadook follows Amelia (Essie Davis), a single mother struggling to raise her troubled six-year-old son Sam (Noah Wiseman). At the same time, Amelia is also grieving her late husband, who died in an accident that occurred while driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth to Sam.
Late one evening, Amelia and Sam discover a disturbing pop-up book, “Mister Babadook”, which tells the story of terrifying monster that mercilessly stalks those who learn of its existence. Amelia and Sam soon begin experiencing unexplained phenomena in their lives, including doors that open and close of their own accord, crushed glass in their meals, bizarre phone calls, and horrifying visions of the supernatural Babadook entity from Sam’s book.
As the strange incidents continue to pile up, Sam’s behaviour grows increasingly erratic and Amelia’s sanity begins to crumble, and the Babadook stands poised to claim its latest victims.
I may have watched a fair chunk of this movie from between my fingers, but even from this compromised viewpoint, what I saw convinced me that The Babadook is a fantastic film.
Writer-Director Jennifer Kent has penned a tight, atmospheric script filled with all manner of frights. Admittedly, proceedings threaten to descend into unintentional silliness towards the end, however, the vast majority of the storytelling is so effective that it’s easy to turn a blind eye to what doesn’t quite work. Kent is also in top form in the director’s chair, and she draws strong performances from her small cast. Davis is especially outstanding in the lead role, and Noah Wiseman is brilliant, too – rare for such a young performer.
Backing up the great cast are the top-notch visuals. Cinematographer Radek Ludczuk and production designer Alex Holmes create a subtly claustrophobic environment that’s so effective largely because it could exist anywhere in the world (only the Aussie accents are a giveaway, location-wise!). What’s more, by soaking this world in a black and white palette, the pair delivers the most striking use of colour in a horror film since The Shining.
That’s not the only striking thing about The Babadook, either; the delightfully old-school visual effects are equally distinctive, particularly the stop-motion animation which (together with a healthy dose of digital smoothening) produces a movie monster that’s uniquely unnatural and creepy. And speaking of unnatural and creepy, props should also go to sound designer Frank Lipson – the voice of the Babadook is the stuff of nightmares all on its own!
Yet for all the bone-chilling horror in The Babadook, this haunted house story is ultimately a moving and eloquent exploration of grief and motherhood.
With Amelia, Kent and Davis give us a portrait of a woman who has never allowed herself to properly mourn her dead husband, or process her complicated (often negative) feelings towards the son who inadvertently caused his death. It’s a sophisticated take that acknowledges that motherhood isn’t always a perfect experience for women.
Even the Babadook itself feeds into this. It’s more than just a movie monster – it’s the embodiment of Amelia’s grief and the blame she feels towards Sam. Unless Amelia can admit this grief monster is real and learn to live with it, it will destroy her life and Sam’s life, too. We’re constantly reminded that you can’t get rid of the Babadook, and the lesson here seems to be that maybe you shouldn’t even try to.
It’s a powerful message – especially from a supposed “genre” movie.
But then, The Babadook isn’t just a great horror movie, it’s a great movie, period. Thanks to its strong script, excellent direction and acting, and disarmingly emotive core, you’ll find yourself choking back tears almost as often as stifling a scream, which makes for a very worthwhile viewing experience indeed.