The Babadook (2014)
I am wishing all my followers and readers a very Happy Halloween, and am presenting a scary and psychologically-interesting Australian horror film “The Babadook“. This film by Jennifer Kent takes its concept from her own short film “Monster” (2005) about a spooky presence pestering a family of two. Similarly, in “The Babadook”, a widowed mother and her son, who has behavioural problems, are trying to cope with the death of their husband/father, while their house is slowly being invaded by a terrified being from a children’s story-book. This wonderfully thought-out, acted and designed film can be read deeper than it initially appears. In “The Babadook”, what may seem to be a straightforward horror story could actually be a thought-provoking cinematic allegory of people learning to deal with and accept the trauma in their lives.
One way to view this film is as a straightforward horror story with the monster being at its core. In that way, the film is spooky and creepy. Amelia is a single mother to a six-year old Samuel who tries to juggle her demanding job in a nursing home with home demands, since Samuel has serious behavioural problems. One day they decide to read a spooky book about a fictional monster the Babadook. The messages in the book unsettle both emotionally, and then they begin to realise that the book monster has decided to make them his target. “If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” The description of the horror may seem unengaging, but it is the way the film presents key moments which make all the difference. From eerie light noses to rumbling sounds, due credit is to be given to the sound editing team for producing such acute feelings of isolation and inward terror in this film. There is, in this story, this inescapable atmosphere of depression and oppression, both at Amelia’s place of work and her home.
Another way to view this film is as a deeper psychological study, and as a journey of learning to cope with grief and depression. In that way, it can also be quite relatable because each person has bad memories they do not want to revisit. As a single mother, Amelia does not cope with her husband’s death six years ago well in the story, but we hardly notice this at first because of Amelia’s fake smiles and attempts at normality. She tries to repress her grief, anger and depression. Her son, Samuel, is going through the same phase, but we can see his condition better, because he loves to play in make-believe scenarios, such as in magicians’ shows, trying to get away from reality, and his behavioural problems, including propensity to violent acts-outs, are clear.
The family is given a chance to confront their trauma face to face when Amelia and Samuel open a children’s book one night. It is impossible to hide from their repressed emotional states anymore, and they find that darkness follows them whenever they go. Depression originates from within, so there is no escape from house to house or from room to room. The Babadook book says in the film “You start to change when I get in, The Babadook growing right under your skin.” In that vein, the Babadook is the family’s metaphorical representation of grief/depression, and Amelia’s inward darkness starts to be reflected in her increasingly bleak surroundings. The dysfunctionality of her home is laid bare when social workers visit and when she notices insects behind her fridge. Amelia becomes increasingly paranoid, and clearly starts to go through all the stages of grief, including denial, fear and bargaining. In this film, the situation grows out of hand in a crescendo-like way, reminding in its intensity and psychological break-down (sometimes in front of a TV) the endings of such films as Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” (2001) or Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” (2001).
It is telling in the story that it is the boy who is the initiator of the new stage of trying to deal with grief and face it, because it is Samuel who insists that they read the Babadook book and it is Samuel who clearly displays the dysfunctionality to the greatest extent of the two. All his behavioural problems may also stem from his and his mother’s repressed depression. Children are sometimes more perceptible that something is wrong and will subconsciously try to persuade their parents to confront the unspoken. Jennifer Kent even finds time in her movie to make a point about the discrimination and alienation that people who battle post-traumatic mental disorders face in their communities (for example, when Amelia meets her and her sister’s “friends” for a coffee/birthday party), and the mother-son relationship is also well-explored.
If you view the film as a simple monster movie, the film’s ending may be criticised for its fantastical conclusion, but, in the context of this film being one person’s journey to save their sanity, the ending makes perfect sense. The message of the movie in the end is that horrors in life must be acknowledged and not buried deep. The trauma/truth must be simply bravely confronted and accepted (made peace with), and not be totally forgotten or denied, to recover and lead a productive future life.
From its sound design to its acting, “The Babadook” seems the perfection of a horror film. Essie Davis as Amelia gives a completely all-giving performance as a mother who is unable to cope with her own and her child’s deteriorating mental states. Terrified of the monster stalking their house, repressed Amelia tries to protect herself and her son, only then to realise that the evil is much closer to her than she has initially imagined. Noah Wiseman, as Amelia’s son Samuel, is not bad, but he definitely overacts and makes his character much more annoying to watch than probably anyone can stand.
“The Babadook” is a slightly unusual horror story whose fascinating concept was perfectly conveyed to the screen. As one of the film’s producers said of this film – the film has both a head and a heart, and when you see the film, you may realise the full meaning of this statement. Whether you see this quality horror as a spooky monster film or as a gloomy psychological case study, it will make a lasting impression either way. 9/10