I’m the kind of person who only watches one or two new horror films a year, on average, and that’s for a number of reasons. Personally I don’t mind being scared witless, but my wife doesn’t particularly enjoy the genre and therefore we don’t tend to play horror films at home, while secondly most of the new releases I read about simply don’t interest me all that much; considering the amount of horror films made each year I think the genre has a too many misses and not enough hits, though I appreciate that my frequency of viewing means that I can’t even begin to back such an opinion up if anyone decides to challenge it. In my teenage years I enjoyed horror, but it’s a style of filmmaking that I’ve gradually drifted away from in the ensuing decades, as I’ve found many of the recurring tropes boring and many of the storylines predictable. That’s just personal taste, of course, though it certainly doesn’t preclude me from sitting up and taking notice when a new movie receives blanket praise and features highly in many of those end-of-year polls; such was the case for Jennifer Kent’s chiller The Babadook in 2014.
It’s a well-made haunted house story, in which Essie Davis’ widow Amelia and her 6-year-old boy Samuel (Noah Wiseman) are terrorised by the titular bogeyman in their Adelaide home, all blue walls and crushed black shadows that suggest the characters are peering into the abyss as they try to identify who (or what) is there. The apparitions begin after Samuel asks his mother to read Mister Babadook, a sinister pop-up book that he suddenly finds on a shelf, and they grow steadily more disturbing and threatening as the story progresses; initially it’s the old knock-knock-knock at the door, but Amelia’s attempts to dispose of the tome (‘Babadook’ is an anagram of ‘A bad book’) are thwarted and her state of frenzy gets steadily worse, exposing long-held psychological issues and previously-hidden feelings about her young son.
The Babadook itself is an obvious metaphor for grief, and the grieving process: we learn that Samuel’s father died in a car accident while driving his wife to the hospital as she entered labour. It’s something that Amelia has never been able to process and move on from, and she keeps her late husband’s possessions locked away in the basement, a room of the house that becomes ever more foreboding and fantastical as the film progresses. She appears to be a loving, caring mother at first, but it is later revealed that she blames wannabe magician Samuel for his father’s death. Thus the Babadook, an evil figure intending to do harm, partly resembles a stereotypical magician (albeit a terrifying one) as it haunts the pair, while Kent’s design nods to A Nightmare On Elm Street and the The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (as well as the stop-motion work of Tim Burton, who shares the same love of German Expressionism).
It’s the relationship between mother and son that drives the story, and it’s key in ensuring that we identify with both characters: as adults most of us can remember the childhood days when we too were frightened of monsters (the imaginary under-the-bed, in-the-closet variety that Samuel mentions during the early scenes here) and we are also able to sympathise with the mother, who apparently has never had the time or the chance to properly grieve for her husband and must reassure her son on a nightly basis despite harbouring some resentment towards him. Horror is always scarier when you care about the characters being terrorised, and that’s the case here: fixed cameras are often used, repeatedly suggesting that Amelia and Samuel are unlikely to escape to somewhere safe outside of the frame, while their situation attracts sympathy and their peril is keenly felt (though I wouldn’t say there’s a guarantee that you’ll have nightmares afterwards). As with many horror films the most terrifying moments arrive in the second act, as the threat escalates, and sadly the confrontational finale is a little disappointing given the level of tension that has preceded it, though it’s not too bad.
Oddly a combination of the niche appeal of the genre and the difficulties associated with distribution means that one of the best reviewed films of recent years made just $6.7 million at the box office. It’s a shame, really, but The Babadook has obviously found a wider audience on DVD and streaming sites since, and if you haven’t yet seen it I’d recommend a viewing; it’s a visually-striking, well-acted and nightmarish piece that relies on a deeper, unsettling psychological undercurrent rather than quick, easy scares (though Kent – a filmmaker who is certainly worth keeping tabs on – is not averse to dropping those in, too).
Directed by: Jennifer Kent.
Written by: Jennifer Kent.
Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman.
Cinematography: Radek Ladczuk.
Editing: Simon Njoo.
Music: Jed Kurzel.
Running Time: 94 minutes.