High quality horror movies always aim for something more than cheap twists and jump scares. For example, family disintegration and isolation seems to the subtext that lays bare at the heart of Kubrick’s “The Shining” (the movie also spawned various other interpretations that ties in Native Americans massacre to Apollo Landings); Tobe Hooper’s bloody chamber horror “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” appears to reverberate the traumas of Vietnam war, particularly the cultural schism America faced in the late 60’s and early 70’s; Spine-chilling Japanese horror films like “Ringu”, “Kairo” (aka Pulse) contemplated the techno-fear that accompanied the millennium. Australian movie “The Babadook” (2014) must at least share a small space in that long list of great horror flicks.
First time director Jennifer Kent has drawn out the spooky premise from her own 2006 short film “Monster”. “The Babadook” doesn’t entirely subvert the cliches of the genre, but features well-developed characters and a robust subtext. It heavily draws influences from horror classics like “A Haunting” and “The Shining”, but at the same time, it’s fittingly unpredictable. The movie’s protagonist Amelia (Essie Davis) has experienced one horrific event in her life which occasionally visits her in the form of nightmare. Seven years before, on the way to hospital to deliver her first child, Amelia’s husband is brutally killed in a car accident.
Amelia’s six year old son (approaching his seventh birthday), Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is emotionally explosive and a high-strung child. He could be the most love-some child and the most unimaginably irritative child. Amelia has her hands full between dealing with her ‘problem’ child and her dispiriting job. The worn-down single mother’s stress and anxiety is further kindled by Sam’s recent ingenuity. He is convinced that a monster is hiding in his room and constructs different weapons to encounter the monster. Amelia’s only solace could be her well-to-do younger sister, but the sister isn’t interested with Amelia’s troubles or mental state and intensely dislikes Sam.
Amidst this volatile situation, a large, red-colored, illustrated book mysteriously appears on Samuel’s bookshelf. Titled as “The Babadook”, the book is about a top-hatted weird creature, which raps three times on your door and asks to be invited in (at your own risk). The Gothic pictures in the book are distressful and induce a strange effect on both the mother and child. Amelia sets the book aside, but the damage is already done as she starts to hear creaky sounds and loud knocks.
The pop-ups and moving parts of the book are wonderfully created by artist Alex Juhasz. The titular character itself seems to be a nod for expressionistic style images (at one point, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” plays on the TV) Director Jennifer Kent uses deftly chosen images, which resembles the intricately detailed visual designs of early Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton movies. Kent displays the characters’ state of mourning through the atmosphere, which is painted in shades of black and grey. In movies like “The Shining” or “Amityville Horror”, family men are possessed by ghost or super-natural being, which directs them to do dark deeds. “Babadook” more or less has the same plot, but approaches it from a women’s point of view, bringing forth the darker side of the relationship between a single mother and child.
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The narrative strand share many horror elements from recent flicks like “Insidious”, “Sinister”, and “Mama”, but the strong character basis elates the movie from being a jump-scare presenter. The lingering sense of dread is heightened a bit by the film’s ambiguous and a little weird ending. It also brings forth the question of “What is Babadook?” Although, “Babadook” could be seen as a straight-forward monster movie, it provides strong subtext that it represents mental illness and depression.
In the birthday party of Amelia’s niece, she converses with her sister’s friends saying that previously (before her husband’s death) she wrote articles about kid stuff in magazines. Although writing and drawing those bleak images is not the same thing, I feel that it is sort of thrown as an indicator about the book’s origin. In another scene, Amelia burns the book and goes to police station to complain that someone is stalking them. The policeman asks about the book, and closely looks at her fingers. We could see grey-black marks on her fingers, which could either be the result of her burning the book or from using pencils to draw those extra pages, found in the book. Even though, Sam is perpetually terrified about ‘Babadook’, Amelia is the only one who sees the monster. All these moments signal that the monster is just in Amelia’s head – an insidious being born from the depressed, sleep-deprived mind.
Amelia never openly talks about her husbands’ death and she has no one to talk to. The trauma of that accident seems to be awake even in when she is sleeping. The only adult with whom she can share her problems (sister) is too self-centric. Grief and loneliness aren’t just the root cause of Amelia’s depression. She is torn between the affection and hate for her child. She is a caring mother, but on a subconscious level Amelia feels that the birth of Sam commenced her grief-stricken life. The inherent hate at one level joins with depression to spawn the monster ‘Babdook’ (a user in the ‘IMDb board cleverly pointed out that the title is a anagram for ‘a bad book’).
Sam’s fear for monster is derived from the lack of father figure and in his attempt to step up in order to protect his mother. The simple weapons he designs are not just to face the monster, but also to shield his mother. He could sense what’s wrong with his mother, but as a six year old he could only attribute to an unseen creature. Towards the end, Sam ties up Amelia and says that the 'babadook' won’t let her love him, and that she has get it out immediately. It’s a template scene that could be seen in a number of possession movies, but here the word 'babadook' could be easily replaced with clinical depression. In the end, Amelia faces the monster and removes its mask. We don’t see the monsters’ face, as it runs quickly into the basement and shuts the door. It is early referenced that Amelia’s memories about her husband (the ones she refuses to think or face) are stored in the basement. Amelia casting out the monster into the basement represents that she had sent the ill feelings where it belongs to. However, the weirdest scene in the film has to be Amelia feeding worms to the monster in the basement (like feeding a dog). Mental illness or depressive disorder can’t be annihilated like a disease, but can be efficiently managed.
The final basement scene shows that Amelia has brought the things (or monster) under her control, although there is no permanent eradication. In the final scene, before entering into the basement, Sam asks his mother ‘may I begin to see it?’ She replies: ‘One day when you’re bigger’. The exchange implies that when is grown up, he could wrestle those monsters. This final scene may appear a little whacky, but I felt subtly conveys answer to the question, ‘what is babadook?’
Despite such metaphors and subtle storytelling methods, the movie surely has some flaws. The vital one is the proceedings in the middle part. The director’s signature lacks in this part as he movie begins to mimic “Shining”. Amelia cries out to Sam: “I just wanna smash your head against the prick wall”. It is a fine nod to Nicholson’s Jack Torrance. Unlike the earlier nod to George Melies, these horror classic influences fully occupy the screen, imparting us with a feeling that the story is traveling into very familiar territory. If this part perfectly balanced the horror elements and film’s subtext, it could have become the horror classic, it deserved to be. The middle act also doesn’t prepare the audience for the ambiguous elements that are thrown throughout the final act.
Considering the recent horror genre performances, the film boasts some great acting from Essie Davis as the emotionally fragile single mother. Her hysterical transformation eludes certain script imbalances. The hyper-active Wiseman makes an impressive debut as Sam. At the start, he resembles the irritating child you see in a PG comedy, but gradually and distinctly expresses the trauma of his character.
“The Babadook” (93 minutes) is a part horror-thriller and part psychological-drama. It provides some original scares, a finely crafted monster and also peers into the silent destructive forces of human psyche.