Movies: The Babadook (2014)

The Australian psychological horror film The Babadook made an enormous splash with critics and horror fans when it came out back in 2014, and to this day it still ends up on many “best horror movies of the century so far” lists. Because of the hype surrounding it, there was also a pretty predictable backlash, with some viewers thinking the movie was boring, annoying, not scary, or wasn’t even a horror movie, which is a criticism I don’t really understand, but whatever. People like different things, and I’m not going to get my panties in a bunch about it, because I have better things to do.

I’m also very amused by the fact that, due to some weird thing where the movie was at one point somewhat inexplicably featured in the LGBTQ+ section of Netflix, said community rolled with it, and embraced the character as an LGBTQ+ icon, making hilarious memes, signs, and costumes of the creepy, long-fingered monster in different guises.

I first saw The Babadook back in 2015 and loved it, and made a note to come back to it for a second watch. Then, recently, I was browsing through the bargain horror movie bin at my local FYE store when I saw a copy of the film on DVD for five bucks, so I grabbed it. And I have to say, I liked the movie just as much, if not more, than I did the first time around.

The Babadook is the feature film debut of Jennifer Kent, who was actually an actor for about twenty years before pivoting into directing. She learned her craft on the job, so to speak, as when she decided to go into directing, she contacted controversial Danish director Lars von Trier and asked to assist on the set of his 2003 film Dogville; he agreed, and she felt that she got her education. Incidentally, Kent is also responsible for the harrowing 2018 film The Nightingale, which is very high up on my to-watch list, despite it not being exactly a horror movie.

Kent actually made a short film back in 2005 called Monster, which was a sort of small-scale version of what would eventually become The Babadook, whose script she would begin working on in 2009. From the first, she wanted the movie to be an exploration of certain aspects of motherhood that weren’t usually featured in horror films, and she also wanted the visuals of the film to harken back to the silent film days, and in particular the work of Georges Méliès and the German Expressionist movement, even down to initially wanting to shoot The Babadook completely in black and white.

The story follows a frazzled single mother named Amelia, played in an Oscar-worthy turn by Essie Davis (who actually went to acting school with Kent and maintained a friendship with her for decades). Almost seven years prior to the events of the film, Amelia’s husband Oskar was killed in a horrific car crash while the couple was en route to the hospital for Amelia to give birth to their first child, a boy named Samuel.

Amelia, it seems, has never really come to terms with the loss, burying it deep within herself and refusing to talk about it or move on with her life. She also harbors a deep but seemingly unconscious resentment toward her son, essentially blaming him for killing her beloved husband; in fact, she has refused to let Samuel celebrate his birthday on the actual day of his birth, since that was also the day of Oskar’s death.

The boy, nearly seven years old, senses his mother’s hatred of him, and acts out in increasingly destructive ways: shrieking at the top of his lungs, building weapons and taking them to school, pushing his cousin out of a treehouse and breaking her nose. Though Amelia is offered a few lifelines to help with her demon spawn⁠—her elderly neighbor Grace is caring and supportive, and school authorities try to work with Sam’s behavioral problems by proposing he be isolated from the other students and taught one-on-one⁠—Amelia seems defensive and reluctant to unburden herself, perhaps because she doesn’t want to be seen as a failure. This dynamic is highlighted by her relationship with her sister, who absolutely does seem to judge Amelia for her shortcomings, and doesn’t particularly want to listen to Amelia’s struggles, even down to refusing to set foot in the same house as the hyperactive Samuel.

Into this cauldron of angst appears a mysterious, hand-crafted children’s book called Mister Babadook. Amelia isn’t sure where it came from, but she starts reading it to Samuel one night before realizing that the book is in no way appropriate for a kid his age, being about a very unsettling monster with a spooky pale face, a shark-like smile, a slouchy top hat, a heavy black cloak, and long, razor-sharp fingers. The monster wants to be let in, and seemingly wants to terrorize their little family. Even though Amelia stops reading before the story gets too upsetting, Samuel is still traumatized, and becomes convinced that the Babadook is real.

Over the course of the rest of the story, Samuel’s behavior becomes worse and worse as he becomes more terrified of the monster, and Amelia begins to lose her grip on sanity as the kid’s antics drive her past her breaking point. She too begins to see the monster, and I’m not gonna lie, it’s still creepy as fuck, especially in the way it skitters around like a puppet made of paper; the look of it is incredible, and its handmade quality makes it seem even more uncanny and otherworldly. His croaky voice is also pretty skin-crawling.

At one stage, Amelia seemingly becomes possessed by the Babadook, which causes her to act upon her murderous impulses, and in the end, the monster isn’t so much defeated as contained and managed, as Amelia learns to come to terms with the complex emotions that spawned him.

As with many monster movies, the character of the Babadook is playing dual roles here: on the one hand, he does seem to be a real monster that both Amelia and Samuel can see; on the other, he is also a creation of Amelia’s simmering animosity toward her child and the unresolved feelings she has about her husband’s death. One criticism I see a lot of the film is that people felt cheated because the monster turned out to be “not real,” but I don’t really think that’s the case, and it also seems to be missing the point. You could also argue that the ghosts that Jack Nicholson sees in The Shining aren’t real but are simply avatars for his raging alcoholism and his antagonism toward his family, but no one seems to be complaining about that. The way I see it, the Babadook is absolutely real; even though it’s implied that Amelia created the book herself, modeled the creature after her son’s magician getup, and later personified the monster as she gave in to her hatred of her own son, I’m of the opinion that the depth of her hostility brought the monster literally into the world. A lot of horror movies play with this trope, so I don’t know why The Babadook was singled out for it, but again, whatever.

Another common gripe with the film is that Samuel is an annoying little shit who you’d like to drop kick into next week. This is absolutely true, and again, that’s exactly the point of the character. At the beginning of the film, you’re meant to sympathize with Amelia as she has to deal with this incorrigible little hellbeast; though I’m not a parent myself, I’ve known enough parents who have told me that there are lots of times when you just actively dislike your own children, and I love that this very common but still sort of taboo emotion was explored in the movie. The viewer is meant to think that Samuel sucks, and to want to strangle the brat.

Slowly, though, as the story unfolds, the viewer starts to realize that Samuel is just a vulnerable little kid, and even though he’s awful, he’s only responding to the way his mother treats him in the only way he knows how. So when Amelia goes full-on monster toward the end, your sympathies have shifted toward Samuel as he falls into the crosshairs of his mother’s deadly rampage. While an argument could be made that the kid’s behavior was too over the top, I will note that having grown up around lots of children—siblings, cousins, and the kids at the day care my parents ran­—I’ve been a firsthand witness to a handful of them who acted just like Samuel, and indeed, the way he’s portrayed is pretty much in line with a diagnosis of ADHD, or maybe even some aspects of autism.

Though the film seems somewhat divisive among horror fans, I’m in the camp of people who absolutely loved it, both for its arresting visuals and its all-around eerie vibe, as well as for its metaphorical deep dive into the complicated feelings mothers harbor toward their offspring. The acting was also incredible, and really sold the escalating horror between Amelia and her son. Not everyone is into it, and that’s okay, but I think it’s easily one of my favorite horror movies of the past several years.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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