0362 | The Babadook

The BabadookI’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 The Babadooklocked 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.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 94 minutes.
Year: 2014.

Comments 15

  1. Dan O. September 22, 2015

    Good review Stu. It works as well because it actually pays attention to its characters and shows emotion between the both of them. That’s what made it all the more effective of a horror-thriller.

    • Stu September 23, 2015

      Thanks Dan. I think the relationship at the heart of the film is an interesting one, albeit one that is defined by the constraints of the horror film (i.e. a few token nods towards their ‘normal’ relationship before something much darker is revealed).

  2. The Vern September 22, 2015

    You are right in saying that this is horror done right because you care about the characters. One of the best Horror films in the last several years. Sad it didnt do so well at Box Office, but this will remain a classic

  3. Jordan Dodd September 23, 2015

    Great post mate! I loved this movie (and I live in Adelaide! :D) and you really summarised it well. I also was a tad disappointed with the ending, but good god how tense are those last 30 minutes!!! I swear, the mother is the scariest thing about the movie!!

    I also don’t really consider this a horror film. Or if I were to use that tag I’d use ‘psychological horror’. Cos that is what this is. Much like Rosemary’s Baby – which this movie reminded me a lot of. Which one of the two do you like the best?

    • Stu September 23, 2015

      Cheers Jordan. The last thirty minutes are very tense, particularly as the director locks it down to the house at that point (unless I’m forgetting any scenes that took place away from it). I found Rosemary’s Baby way scarier than this though. In fact the horror films that creep me out the most are the ones that deal with the Devil or Satanism in some way or other (The Omen, which I guess is a similar kind of story, kept me awake for nights afterwards). Must be something to do with my Catholic upbringing!

      • Jordan Dodd September 23, 2015

        I am the same, I love that idea of evil in a biblical sense. Also raised Catholic hehe. Rosemary’s was definitely more horror than the Babadook, but I consider them both psychological horror. The best sub-genre there is! 😀

    • Stu September 23, 2015

      That is a a real shame. Australian cinema is in good health, arguably the best it has ever been, judging by the films released over here in the past few years. American audiences do tend to dismiss a lot of movies made overseas but more usually simply don’t get the chance to see them on the big screen. I guess when you’re following a load of film bloggers and reading their reviews it’s easy to think that movies like The Babadook have been commercially successful; so many people watched and reviewed this positively (at least within the small community on WordPress) last year that it should have made the same kind of money as the likes of The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity.

      • Jordan Dodd September 23, 2015

        Good points. And I totally agree, Aussie cinema has been steadily getting better and better as this decade has gone by. Wolf Creek 2 made a dent, Babadook, this year Last Cab to Darwin is playing at TIFF… we are raising our game!

  4. Todd Benefiel September 24, 2015

    Thank you, Stu, for the recent string of reviews of movies I’ve actually seen! (Done purposely, I’m sure). I watched this one just about a month ago, and perhaps it was the build-up of reading so much positive about it, but in the end I was a tad disappointed. And I think I know the reason for that: six-year-old Samuel, whose irritating antics and attitude drove me up a freaking tree. Good lord, what a little shit! And since I was supposed to care for him, and didn’t, I think my enjoyment of the film suffered. But the film did have its moments (the Babadook fast-crawling across the ceiling was definitely a chiller), and your review enlightened me to many things (there were metaphors?), so maybe I’ll give this another go. It’s on Netflix, it’s free, so why not?

    • Stu September 24, 2015

      We’re on a roll Todd! I’m sorry to hear you were disappointed by this one, and the character. I didn’t find him that annoying, I must admit, although I don’t think I could have taken any more of his magician act. I’d be interested to see a review of this one from you to find out your take on it in full – I think you more of a dedicated horror fan than me! Thanks very much.

      • Todd Benefiel September 24, 2015

        I’ll watch it again, and review it, too; the conditions under which I watched it before weren’t quite stellar, nor was my mood at the time, so I probably owe it a second chance. And with your insights in mind now, maybe I’ll see and/or understand aspects that I didn’t before. If anything, it’ll prepare me for ‘Babadook II: The Little Magician’.

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