The Babadook, dir/wr. Jennifer Kent, st. Essie Davis, Noah Wieseman
Whilst horror films are nothing like busses, I'm keen to use the idiom here: a few weeks back I waxed lyrical about Leigh Janiak's Honeymoon, how most horror has been diluted down to nothing more than a series of Gotcha! scares. Honeymoon was a rare exception, nuanced and possessing of real substance. But although critical reception for Janiak's film might have been whispered, media outlets are currently going nuts for a film by Jennifer Kent that started life as Monster, a German Expressionism-influenced short. That nine-minute film has been gloriously upcycled into The Babadook, this time jettisoning its source-material betraying black and white cinematography for a wider, albeit muted colour palate, but more importantly, giving time and space for menace and dread to propagate. The Babadook tells the story of Amelia and her son Samuel. Six years previously, Amelia's husband died in a car accident as he was rushing her to hospital to give birth. Now, their only son has grown up deeply traumatised by the violence surrounding his entry into this world, and Amelia has to struggle with tantrums, paranoia, and neediness that borders on the inappropriate. Matters are exacerbated however when one night, Samuel pulls a book seemingly at random off his shelf for his mother to read to him as he falls asleep. The Babadook (a most masterful example of fearful prop-making) is the pop-up book Tim Burton might have written had he not had a decent upbringing. In it, a long-robed, top-hatted antiquated type of figure promises trouble now the book has been opened, and the words within, like some ancient incantation, have been uttered. Later, Amelia studies the book more closely. No publisher, author, or press details. The book just is. Noah, who has already turned to magic and illusion as an attention-seeking coping mechanism, falls for the threat of the monster hook, line and sinker, but bravely steps up to the challenge of defeating it. Or perhaps there's no monster at all, and Noah, whose birth after all represents the death of Amelia's husband, is an ever present living manifestation of Amelia's grief.
I wrote a few years ago about the wonders of Lars von Trier's Melancholia, whether the presence of the great Earth-ending planet is causing Kirsten Dunst's Justine's depression, or whether her depression is reaching out to the planet, calling it nearer through the cosmos. There's a similarity here. The film unfolds in such a disturbingly stilted way, like The Ring's Samara reverse-stop-motioning towards us, it's difficult to know whether any of it is real at all. But that's precisely why The Babadook succeeds so triumphantly. There are shocks, but there's also an insidious unease that pervades the movie. The Babadook comes at night, but the following daylight offers little joy, only the promise of another night yet to come. The film absolutely works as another tale of supernatural unrest, but it works better as a psychological drama. There's nothing scarier than a mother and child, whose bond has been held up as the most absolute of absolutes, slowly playing a part in each other's unravelling.