The Babadook’s is that rare horror movie whose monster functions fully as both a metaphor for the film’s themes, and as an actual concrete threat to the characters within the narrative world. It’s a hell of a neat trick, and the seamlessness with which first-time feature film writer-and-director Jennifer Kent slides between those various conceptions from scene to scene is remarkable.
Even more impressive is what she uses the film’s titular boogie man as a metaphor for: the costs and duties of single motherhood. Rarely is a film so firmly and substantively rooted in an experience that remains distinctly female within western society, and rarely is a film willing to leave its fate so completely in the hands of its lead actress.
That would be Essie Davis in this case – a well-known actress in Australia, where The Babadook was produced – and her performance is a corker. She plays Amelia, a woman who lost her husband in a car wreck on the way to the birth of their child. The boy, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), is now seven, and is equal parts adorable, precocious, and burdened by his share of behavioral issues. That leaves a frazzled Amelia to work her day job at a nursing home, and to regularly smooth things over with the officials at her son’s school.
Samuel suffers from an overweening fear of monsters. Every night, Amelia takes him through a routine check under the bed and in the closet before they settle down for a storybook reading. One night, their search for a new read turns up a strange pop-up book on the shelf, titled “Mister Babadook,” about a nighttime visitor who slips into the homes of children. It starts out innocently enough, but turns sinister and threatening by the end, sending Samuel into hysterics. Over the next few days, the boy becomes convinced the Babadook is stalking him. When he goes to school with a homemade crossbow he’s constructed for protection, the resulting blow-up prompts Amelia to bring him home until she can find a more understanding institution. That’s when things really begin to unravel.
Perhaps the most effective aspect of The Babadook is the way the film draws its terror out of the everyday domestic isolation that single mothers in particular can suffer from, and the way our society so often fails to support them. School officials view Samuel as a burden, and her sister and friends are disturbed and repulsed by his behavior, making any kind of community connection difficult. He’s unable to sleep from fear, which means she can’t sleep either. Wiseman’s performance is on par with Davis’, as the pale and slightly odd-looking child is required to swing from demented outbursts to deeply earnest care and concern for his mother. Also impressive is the turn the movie takes over its course, as the audience goes from viewing Samuel as a burden to viewing him as possibly the most sympathetic character – and certainly the most sympathetic child – in the film.
Meanwhile, the scenario prompts decisions on Amelia’s part that are perfectly understandable if you’re exhausted, but are also terrible strategic choices if you’re actually being haunted by a spectral presence. In one deeply unnerving scene, Amelia rips apart the Babadook book and hurls it into the garbage, only to find it repaired on her doorstep — complete with all new pages laying out, in gruesome detail, the creature’s plans for her and her son. Terrified, she burns it, then goes to the police to report that she’s being stalked. But without the book, the cops have no evidence, and the exhausted and paranoid Amelia strikes a distinctly weird and untrustworthy figure.
Eventually, the Babadook comes for Amelia herself. Kent’s creation relies on old-school practical effects and camera tricks, and is an unnerving apparition — all height and black coat and tophat and long, knife-like fingers and creepy, jerky motion. It does not appear capable of physical harm, but instead relies on very real supernatural powers to get inside the heads and psyches of its victims. This conceit allows the Babadook to function simultaneously as a metaphor for the outside world’s hostility and indifference to the family’s circumstances, and as a metaphor for Amelia’s own simmering resentment/anger towards Samuel. They do not speak of his father’s death, and Amelia refuses to allow him into the basement where she keeps her husband’s belongings. She can’t even bare to celebrate Samuel’s birthday on the its actual day.
When the Babadook inevitably gets its psychological claws into the protagonists, they say (and do) things that are horrific, but those things are also phantasmagorical intensifications of specific, dark, and very real corners of their character. So the points of highest tension are also the moments when some character’s moral reserve crumbles, and when their capacity for love and graciousness is overtaken by rage and desperation. The Babadook’s most terrifying moments are also its saddest.
Kent’s approach sometimes goes into a swing-for-the-fences mode, especially in a late 20-minute sequence where the film essentially becomes a slasher flick. In the climax, the walls of reality begin to break down entirely in a way that’s both over-the-top and thrilling. But Kent never loses her vision or vitality as director, and Davis’ work keeps things anchored while showing incredible range. The set design and cinematography are also brilliantly conceived: Amelia and Samuel’s home is all structured angles and slate grey tones, as if they’re living inside the very pop-up book that’s haunting them.
Kent also goes beyond mere impressive cinematic execution. The Babadook treats the vocation of parenthood with dead seriousness, as an office of great moral import. It’s a deeply felt investigation of what parenthood costs people and what it can pull forth from them, and it’s one of the best movies of the year.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=szaLnKNWC-U