Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook” Offers Smart, Thematic Terror

I cannot recommend watching first-time director Jennifer Kent’s Australian horror film The Babadook at night if you genuinely want to finish it. The terrifying atmosphere feels oppressive, to the point that the film almost encourages a viewer to throw in the towel and re-visit the film in the light of day (if ever). Minor tics from the characters manifest into horrible payoffs, but there are also just supremely creepy sequences that rival  the most chilling moments in any horror film. In addition, the narrative contains legitimate pathos, as we find ourselves caring about the characters’ respective arcs and struggles when we manage to peer through our fingers and actually see the screen.

The Babadook tells the story of a single mother named Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (Noah Weismann). On the car trip to the hospital the night Samuel was born, Amelia’s husband Bobby was killed in a car accident, and the family has been dealing with that tragedy ever since. The underlying trauma is intimated by heartbreaking details, such as having Samuel share his birthday with his cousin because Amelia cannot bear to celebrate on his actual birthday. Samuel also lacks any kind of social filter, and is quick to discuss his father’s death even with absolute strangers, which visibly pains Amelia.

To all of this, add Samuel’s obsession with monsters. Early on we are shown the routine that he and Amelia must go through at bedtime: they check the closet, under the bed, and the corners of his room for any monsters, and then read a bedtime story. One night, Samuel produces a particularly spooky story: Mister Babadook. It tells the story of a supernatural entity that will torment those who become aware of its existence, and of course Samuel absolutely freaks out and insists that it is real.  Amelia eventually destroys the Mister Babadook book in an effort to calm him. Regardless, Sam remains convinced of the Babadook’s existence. Further, he insists on telling everyone at his joint party about it, and even pushes his cousin out of a tree house as they argue about it – which only further strains Amelia’s relationship with her sister.

On the way home, Sam sees The Babadook riding in the car with them and has a seizure. The resulting doctor’s visit allows Amelia to procure some sleeping pills for Sam, in an effort to get him to calm down about The Babadook. Unfortunately, now Amelia has to deal with bizarre noises and occurrences, including the most creepy sequence of the film: the return of the Babadook book. Amelia finds it on her doorstep, and looks through it again – but this time it is decidedly different, and eerily personal. Now, the Babadook has her.

From this point, the film enters into an uneasy haze, as Amelia struggles to sleep and becomes ever-more frustrated with Samuel’s behavior. But, it isn’t until she becomes possessed by the Babadook that we fully realize the extent of these feelings: her grief at the loss of her husband manifests itself as a murderous hatred of her son, and the Babadook convinces her that by killing him she can have her husband back. The final act of the film is all pointed towards resolving this conflict, and it is at once terrifying, unpredictable, and painfully too-real.

The special effects sequences containing the Babadook are also of note. Mostly stop-motion animation is done to portray the creature on screen, as Kent insisted on techniques which would allow the monster to actually be captured on screen. This is effective as it both imbues the Babadook with a palpable strangeness, yet still cements him as genuine and somehow real. This is a spectacular example of choosing the style of special effects to aid both the plot and theme of the story, and shows remarkable maturity and foresight from Kent which is sorely missing from most horror films these days (to say nothing of Hollywood blockbusters).

The hypnotic draw of The Babadook is in how effectively it uses its eponymous supernatural creature as a thematic representation of the destructive nature of grief. Even at the beginning of the film, Amelia is bogged down by it, and her life is negatively affected. As she attempts to ignore it or wish it away, her grief is magnified until it wholly consumes her and poisons the only rewarding relationships that she has left. The finale of the film furthers this element of the theme, as the Babadook forever remains a part of the story. Just as grief and trauma can fade yet never fully dissipate, The Babadook will always be with Amelia. But, it is she who determines the power that it will yield. If you can muster the courage to confront The Babadook, you will be rewarded with a modern classic.

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