I don’t scare easily. When you watch as many horror movies as I do, you become numb to a lot of the most common scare tactics. You always know when something is going to jump out from behind a corner, you can tell when the killer is going to strike, and you wait for the bumps in the night as soon as the main characters enter the haunted house. The fact that I frequently know what to expect doesn’t lessen my enjoyment of horror flicks, quite the opposite actually. It means I can appreciate the craftsmanship (or lack thereof) on display without worrying if I’m going to be able to sleep that night. That being said, I do like being scared and it happens so rarely that when it does, I usually wind up cowering under my covers with the lights on. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook had this effect on me. Simply put, it scared me shitless and forced me to play mind games with myself in order to get through the whole film. At one point, I said to myself, “I’m a grown ass man, I don’t need to put the lights on to get through this movie. I’m fine!” Five minutes later, something terrifying happened and I raced to the wall switch with all the swiftness of skilled track runner. It’s the scariest movie I’ve seen in years. And yes, I did have trouble sleeping that night.
Now, I realize by saying this I run the risk of building up the movie too much in your mind, like so many critics did with The Blair Witch Project all those years ago. So let me remind you that what scares us, similar to what makes us laugh, is always subjective. Maybe ghosts are what really spook you, maybe serial killers are, or maybe clowns are. Maybe you can watch Stephen King’s It without batting an eye but the second someone turns on Poltergeist you find yourself running for the stairs. The point is, what scares me may not be what scares you. And we’re not often even sure exactly what scares us the most. I learned from The Babadook that I’m still scared of the monster under the bed. I’m also scared of children’s picture books, of shadowy figures lurking in the background, of the idea that not everyone can see the monster that’s trying to gobble me up, of losing my mind, of mysterious voices that don’t have an owner, and, of course, of the dark. So if those are on your own list of spooky things, step right up (or don’t) and see what The Babadook is all about. I should also mention that it’s one of the best films of the year and well worth your attention whether it scares you or not.
First of all, get over the title. Just get the fuck over it right now. Congratulations, you’ve noticed that it sounds like a nonsense word. All that shows is that you have ears and eyes. Consider that Babadook is an anagram for A Bad Book and you might appreciate it a little more. Doesn’t matter though, just get over it. You shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover and you shouldn’t judge a movie by its title (though I think it’s a damn cool title but that’s just me).
The film opens on a mother and a child named Amelia and Samuel (Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman) as they go through their nightly routine. This consists of checking the closet, behind the door, and under the bed for things that go bump in the night. Once safe, they settle in for the night with a book that Amelia reads aloud and then go off to dreamland. One night, Samuel pulls a strange looking pop up book off the shelf with the ominous title of Mr. Babadook. The titular creature can be summoned after you answer his three knocks at your door. And once you let him in, you can’t ever get rid of him. Amelia is put off by the book almost instantly and suggests reading something else but her son, already obsessed with monsters (he keeps building weapons to kill them that get him in trouble at school), is far too entranced by this strange book to let her do that. One of the movie’s pleasures is that it acknowledges that little kids like being scared. It’s only when they realize that the monster might be real that they start having mental problems.
And boy oh boy, does this kid have mental problems. He’s socially awkward, whiny, prone to outbursts, depressive, and far too observant for his own good. It’s a miracle that writer director Jennifer Kent was able to find such a gifted child actor in Wiseman. He’s annoying yes, but only when he’s supposed to be annoying. We only want to slap him when his mother wants to slap him. When he’s not being a brat, he’s intelligent, resourceful, and an easy hero to root for once the shit hits the fan.
He’s not the only one with mental problems though. We sense right from the start that something is wrong with Amelia too. She’s just as withdrawn as he is, doesn’t know how to talk to people, and is also prone to stunning, vicious outburts directed towards her friends and family as well as her son. Her husband died the night the boy was born and she has never recovered. Her sister offers her nuggets of wisdom straight out of a cheap self help book and is unwilling to discuss her problems with any real depth. The neighbor lady is kind to her but still doesn’t grasp the full weight of the issues she’s dealing with. No one really does, except maybe her son.
So Amelia doesn’t have many people turn to for help when Samuel starts seeing Mr. Babadook everywhere. There’s a terrifying sequence in the car where he starts screaming at something that Amelia can’t see. He howls, “don’t let it in” over and over again and is soon so out of control that he has to be removed from school. Amelia decides to tear up the damn book but we know that never works in a horror movie does it? It arrives on her doorstep one day and she reads it all by herself, horrified to discover that it contains new gruesome images and is now primarily focused on her and Samuel specifically. It’s at this point that Amelia starts seeing Mr. Babadook herself and becomes convinced that it wants the both of them. She tries burning the book but Samuel grimly reminds her, “You can’t get rid of the babadook.”
And he’s right. The creature torments them day and night. Of course, Kent plays around with us a bit and makes us wonder whether or not all of this is just part of Amelia’s fractured psyche. There’s nothing cheaper in a horror movie than an ‘it was all in their head’ conclusion and Kent is aware of this. She uses the creature as a metaphor for things like madness and depression but also makes it clear that this thing is a real, physical threat. The film’s ending is very well earned and not cheap at all. We never get a full explanation of what Mr. Babadook is or where he comes from and that’s a good thing. Another cheap horror trope is the character who is there solely to provide exposition, like Vincent D’Onofrio in Sinister or that librarian in Mama. There’s no hipster demonologist for Amelia to call, no one to say, “You’ve got a Babadook problem!”, no ancient text with all the answers, and no one to tell her or Samuel what to do. They have to figure it out for themselves. This makes things scarier for the audience because, just like the characters, we don’t know the rules, we don’t know what it can and can’t do, and we don’t don’t know how to kill it.
We never get a full picture of Mr. Babadook but Kent gives us just enough to scare us silly. When it moves, she uses stop motion animation and that gives it a strange, otherworldly quality that CGi effects wouldn’t be able to convey. And she also suggests that we wouldn’t want to see more of this monster. She obscures the beast enough to be able to hint at the rest of its features and that makes it all the more terrifying because she knows that what we come up with in our heads is always going to be ten times scarier that what she and her effects team could create. She’s a director who understands the truth of this old adage: it’s not seeing the monster under the bed that is scary, it’s the idea of the monster under the bed.
Kent also fills the movie with a palpable sense of dread right from the very first shot. Amelia and Samuel’s house is gray, cold, and filled with shadows. The colors are muted in almost every scene, right down to the clothes people wear. No one ever wears anything bright; it’s all grays, blacks, and dark blues. The brightest thing in the movie is Amelia’s blonde hair. It’s as if Kent has made a black and white movie in color, if that makes any sense. And that gives the film an unsettling, dreamlike vibe that puts us on edge immediately.
I mentioned how good Wiseman is as Samuel. Now it’s time for me to heap praise on Essie Davis as Amelia. In another actor’s hands, this character could have become extremely unlikeable but Davis makes us feel her pain. We understand her anger, her outbursts, her desperation, and her fear. Things come to a head in the film’s relentless final thirty minutes when it basically transforms into a two person play as Amelia and Samuel try to outwit each other and Mr. Babadook. It’s a terrifically suspenseful last act but one that also examines all the bitterness and frustration that comes between a mother and her child. This makes the film’s conclusion equal parts touching and chilling.
Like I said earlier, it’s not easy for a film to scare me but this one did. It scared me because of its ideas, because of the way it was constructed, because of Jennifer Kent’s masterful understanding of the genre, because of the way it made me imagine the worst parts of the monster, and because it tapped into real human fears, such as insanity, with a level of depth most films don’t ever bother trying to reach. And Jesus Christ, I didn’t even mention how scary the pop up books are! They were created by an artist named Alex Juhasz and they’re just…well…I can’t even talk about them without getting the chills.
People ask me a lot why I like horror films so much. “They’re so violent,” they say or, “they’re so cheesy”, or “they’re just stupid.” I admit, people are frequently right when they say things like that. But the truly great horror films are none of those things. They’re movies less about monsters and demons and more about the human condition. They tap into what makes us tick. They use horror as a way to comment on how we behave . We’re always running from something aren’t we? Be it commitment, relationships, work, depression, despair, or lunacy. A horror movie just takes those primal emotions and gives them physical form. It’s a way for us to face our fears in an manner that isn’t so abstract so that we can be released from them, if only for an hour or two. In other words, I like horror because of films like The Babadook.
The Babadook opens in select theaters November 28. It will also be available On Demand.