Amelia Vanek is a single mother trying to make a good life for her son, Samuel. His seventh birthday is rapidly approaching, and while it would be a cause for celebration in most households, it marks a particularly painful anniversary for Amelia. Her husband, Oskar, was killed in a car accident attempting to drive her to the hospital. Though Amelia claims she has gotten over her husband’s tragic death, her demeanor betrays her highly troubled psyche. Exacerbating matters is her son’s erratic behavior. He has become an insomniac as of late, believing monsters are out to get him. To combat these imaginary threats, he has been building weapons and bringing to them to school – much to the board’s dismay. One night, he asks his mother to read a pop-up storybook entitled Mister Babadook.
The Babadook was the directorial debut of Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent. Many of the ideas that drive The Babadook originated in a short film she shot in 2005 entitled Monster. Prior to that, she had worked in the film industry as an actress after graduating from the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in 1991, though she lost her passion when the decade came to a close. Not wishing to drop out of the industry entirely, she wrote a proposal to avant-garde Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, asking if she could assist the production of his latest project, Dogville. The proposal was accepted, and she made use of her experience when she found herself in the director’s chair nearly a decade later.
Much like how Mr. von Trier surrounded himself by a “family of people”, Ms. Kent sought out a family of collaborators who would work with her in the long term. However, she couldn’t find all of the suitable people within the Austrialian film industry, forcing her to look abroad for a director of photography and an illustrator. Respectively fulfilling those roles were Radek Ladczuk from Poland and Alexander Juhasz from the United States. Drawing inspiration from classic horror films such as Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Vampyr, Ms. Kent went into her project seeking to tell a story about the darkness that exists within ourselves. Specifically, she wanted to highlight the “fear of going mad” and explore parenting from “a real perspective”.
Even before the paranormal elements have a chance to manifest, it’s clear that Amelia and Samuel are deeply troubled individuals. Amelia claims she has moved on past the death of her husband, but she can barely hide the resentment she has for her son. So convinced is Samuel of monsters being real that he lashes out at everyone who tells him otherwise. That he talks about killing these monsters in graphic detail only adds to the severity of his issues. This culminates in him pushing his cousin, Ruby, out of her treehouse, breaking her nose in the process. Given that she bullied him for not having a father, she isn’t exactly sympathetic, however.
The titular monster is introduced in a novel way – literally. The pop-up book details a monster who wants to be friends with the reader, announcing his presence with three sharp knocks which lends him his name. Once the reader lets him in, they’ll never sleep again. If he takes off his disguise, they’ll wish they were dead. Needless to say, this is not suitable for children, and Amelia throws the book away after tearing out its pages. Unfortunately for her, the book reappears on her doorstep with new pages added. They detail a woman killing a dog and a child before slitting her own throat – all under the influence of the Babadook.
Despite the supernatural development, a lot of what allows The Babadook to shine is how much Ms. Kent is able to make the ordinary terrifying. This is not a film loaded with jump scares and gratuitous, cheap violence. Indeed, the monster is rarely ever shown to the audience, effectively placing the onus on them to scare themselves. When it is shown to the audience, it doesn’t even seem as though it even belongs in the film. The team seems to invoke the Uncanny Valley effect by animating it via stop motion techniques.
Along those lines, the body count is astonishingly low for a horror film – the only onscreen casualty is of the family dog. Instead, Ms. Kent places more of an emphasis on atmosphere, giving viewers the sense that something dangerous is just around the corner. When things get out of control, you won’t know who you can trust, as the new pages do an excellent job foreshadowing what the Babadook will do if Amelia continues to deny its existence. It’s especially haunting when you consider those real-life stories in which a parent completely snaps and kills off their entire family – children included. What is remarkable is that Ms. Kent accomplishes this without making the Babadook unnecessarily powerful. When the book reappears and Amelia wisely decides to burn it, it doesn’t magically repair itself afterwards. Despite this, it’s clear the Babadook is still out there.
In fact, by the time the credits roll, the Babadook still hasn’t been eradicated because it’s ultimately a manifestation of Amelia’s grief. In the film’s climax, she is possessed by the Babadook and nearly kills Samuel, though she is eventually able to fight its hold over her and expel it from her body. However, after all is said and done, she cannot unring the bell. The grief she feels over Oskar’s death can never be fully cast aside, but by accepting it, she is able to deal with it in a much healthier manner. After tormenting Amelia and Samuel for the entire film, the Babadook is eventually reduced to an invisible, powerless force. It is now completely dependent on Amelia to keep it alive by feeding it worms.
The Babadook was one of most praised films of 2014, amassing a nearly unanimous level of critical acclaim. With horror being such a subjective genre, it didn’t take long for there to be something of a backlash against it. Detractors felt the titular monster had no business being in the film, and that Amelia’s depression should have been the primary focus of the narrative. These people theorized the monster was thrown into the film to make it more marketable. Others went into The Babadook believing that it would be a thrill ride in a similar vein to the countless slasher films of the eighties. These people were doubtlessly disappointed when they discovered The Babadook to be a slow-paced, atmospheric piece with a highly melancholic tone.
Although I wouldn’t go as far as calling The Babadook one of the greatest films of all time, I personally felt it to be a solid, minimalistic experience. Those who didn’t enjoy the film insisted the characters were horribly unlikable, but in all honesty, I feel that complaint isn’t valid. Granted, Samuel’s behavior is obnoxious, but compared to the cast of the average slasher film at the time, he is downright amiable. On the merits of providing a more introspective take on an often hammy genre, The Babadook is worth checking out for yourself.
Final Score: 7/10