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), but on the other, I’m also a bit of a chicken when it comes to things that go bump in the night.
Still, it’s Halloween and I feel it’s my obligation to post an article on supernaturally-inclined pop culture – so with that in mind, let’s take a look back at one of the best horror films in recent years, 2014’s The Babadook.
The Babadook introduces us to Amelia (Essie Davis), a young woman struggling to raise her troubled six-year old son Sam (Noah Wiseman) after her husband died in a car accident en route to the hospital so that she could give birth.
Late one evening, Amelia and Sam discover a disturbing pop-up book, “Mister Babadook”, which tells the story of terrifying monster called which mercilessly stalks those who learn of its existence.
Amelia and Sam soon experience unexplained phenomena in their lives, including doors that open and close of their own accord, crushed glass in meals, bizarre phone calls, and worst of all, horrifying visions of a seemingly supernatural entity.
As Sam’s behaviour grows increasingly erratic, Amelia’s sanity begins to crumble, and it seems only a matter of time before the Babadook claims its latest victims…
I might have watched a fair chunk of this movie from between my fingers, but I still saw more than enough to convince me that The Babadook is fantastic film.
Writer-Director Jennifer Kent has penned a tight script, and tells a gripping tale filled with atmosphere and all manner of frights. If – as is the case with so many otherwise-great horror movies – things descend slightly into unintentional silliness towards the end, the vast majority of the storytelling is so effective that you’ll easily turn a blind eye to whatever doesn’t quite work.
Kent is also in top form in the director’s chair, and she draws strong performances from her small cast. In particular, Davis is outstanding in the lead role, and Noah Wiseman is quite brilliant too, which is rare for such a young performer.
Backing up the great cast are the top notch visuals. Cinematographer Radek Ludczuk and production designer Alex Holmes have cleverly created a claustrophobic environment that could exist anywhere in the world (but for the Aussie accents!) and by imbuing this world with a black and white-heavy colour palette, the pair presents the most striking use of colour in a horror film since The Shining.
Then there’s the delightfully old school visual effects, which use stop-motion animation (with a healthy dose of digital smoothening) to make a monster which is both unnatural and creepy.
The Babadook also benefits from exceptional sound design by Frank Lipson, and the voice he has developed for the Babadook is the stuff of nightmares all on its own!
This all adds up to a haunted house story that turns out to be a surprisingly moving and eloquent exploration of grief.
LOOK OUT! SPOILERS!
As is the case with many great works of fiction, The Babadook isn’t really a story about wicked poltergeists at all, any more than Animal Farm is a tale about talking animals. No, at its heart, this is a film about the unresolved emotional issues festering at the core of lonely, heartbroken Amelia.
She’s a woman who has never allowed herself to properly mourn her dead husband, and can’t address her complicated feelings towards her son, who she can’t help but blame for his death.
It’s a complex portrait of motherhood, more intelligent and nuanced than many so-called “serious” films can muster. As Kent herself put it (in an interview with Den of Geek):
“Now, I’m not saying we all want to go and kill our kids, but a lot of women struggle. And it is a very taboo subject, to say that motherhood is anything but a perfect experience for women.”
The Babadook monster can thus be viewed as a metaphor for Amelia’s grief. It’s a devastating force in her life, growing in power the more she tries to deny its existence, and if left unchecked, it will destroy not only her life, but Sam’s as well.
Therefore it comes as little shock when the Babadook at one point takes on the form of Amelia’s husband, and it seems almost like this could be viewed as the creature’s true form – the cause of her heartache, and the very thing manipulating her actions (not mention warping her grasp on reality).
This all comes to a head in the incredibly affecting scene where a possessed Amelia nearly strangles Sam to death, and only by her son reaching out to her and re-awakening her love for him is she able to connect with her child at long last.
In this moment, Amelia lets go of the sorrow which has taken her over, and embraced the love available to her in the here and now. When she then confronts the Babadook, making her love for Sam plain, the monster is defeated, as grief for those we have lost is no match for the emotions we feel for the living.
Of course, we’re quickly reminded that “You can’t get rid of the Babadook”, and in the final moments of the film, we learn that Amelia has ended up having to imprison the monster in her basement rather than banishing it outright.
It’s easy to tease out the meaning here: We can master our grief, but only by accepting it as a valid emotion, one over which it is our duty to exercise control in order to live a healthy life.
THE SPOILERS! THEY’RE…THEY’RE GONE!
The Babadook is one of the finest examples of a horror movie you’re ever likely to see, and a fine example of filmmaking, period.
Thanks to its strong script, excellent direction and acting, and disarmingly emotive core, you’ll be just as likely to find yourself choking back tears as stifling screams, making it a very worthwhile viewing experience indeed.