Terrifying and moving. Not necessarily a verdict you might expect from a film in a genre as disreputable as horror, but it is actually a more common verdict than you might imagine. Many horror classics – Dead Ringers, The Sixth Sense, Let the Right One In, Don’t Look Now and The Exorcist are five that leap to mind without me even thinking very hard – demonstrate what separates a great horror film from merely a competent one: that vitally important bit of emotional engagement. Said engagement will provide the true catharsis sought by the audience, rather than merely treat it to a few expertly engineered scares. In the case of The Babadook – an extraordinary debut from writer/director Jennifer Kent – I wasn’t merely scared witless. I was deeply moved as well.
The eponymous Babadook is a children’s story that turns up in the home of struggling and desperately lonely single mother Amelia (Essie Davis). Unfamiliar with the book or how it got there, she nevertheless begins to read it to her son Robbie (Daniel Henshall). In the process she discovers that whilst it begins like a dark, twisted Tim Burton-esque version of a Julia Donaldson story, it soon escalates into something genuinely horrifying. Subsequently, although she tries to hide it, tear it up, bin it, and burn it, the Babadook book keeps reappearing inside Amelia’s house. More alarmingly, the Babadook monster itself begins to manifest. As the book warns, you can’t get rid of the Babadook…
Complicating these apparently supernatural incidents is the fact that the Babadook was hardly a story Amelia wanting rattling round her son’s brain, as he exhibits a greater than usual fear of monsters. Because of this he has behavioural difficulties – for example, his insistence on bringing a homemade crossbow to school gets him in trouble with the teachers. What really lies at the core of both mother and son’s difficulties, however, is that Robbie’s father died in a car crash whilst Amelia was on her way to the hospital to give birth. This adds tremendous depth (and strain) to the mother/son relationship, and also provides a rare chance for a horror film to explore a matriarchal rather than patriarchal descent into (possible) madness. All of which proves particularly frightening as the possibility emerges that, under the influence of the Babadook, Amelia might end up murdering her own son.
The Babadook, in all its genuinely bone-chilling manifestations, is an ambiguous monster. For one thing, it cannot possibly be a delusion as both Robbie and later Amelia become aware of its presence. What is it then? A demon? A manifestation of the shame Amelia feels because of her subconscious wish that Robbie had died rather than her husband? A manifestation of guilt because of her own feelings of inadequacy as a single mother? Or – my own interpretation – does the Babadook simply represent overwhelming suppressed grief? The fact that the Babadook is utterly real to both the son and the mother underscores this theory, as no other characters in the plot are affected by the monster.
The Babadook owes a debt to many horror films. From German Expressionist influences, particularly the hugely effective pop-up book which recalls The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, through to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, the nightmarish imagery of David Lynch and paedophobia gems such as Village of the Damned or The Innocents, Jennifer Kent references the true greats in her chosen genre. Yet The Babadook is also a singular and brilliant work in its own right. Particular credit must be given for the extraordinary performances of both Davis and particularly Henshall, who treads the near-impossibly tricky line between believably bratty and heart-wrenchingly huggable with aplomb. Radek Ladczuk’s chilly, hugely atmospheric cinematography is equally impressive; filling every frame with menace whether they be dark interiors, skeletal black tree branches or bugs crawling out from holes in the wall (from behind wallpaper – an obvious but effective metaphor for Amelia’s repressive approach to dealing with loss). In addition, the special effects – almost entirely achieved through old-school in-camera trickery without a CG pixel in sight – are a joy (well, a terror), to behold. The hugely imaginative sound design, absolutely critical in horror films, is also worth a special mention.
I suppose I have to add the regulation warnings about swearing and some gruesome sequences, not to mention how downright scary it is, but obviously this isn’t a film for people who cannot see past such things. As someone who often defends the horror genre as misunderstood (particularly by Christians), I must say that if you have the temperament for it, there is a really positive undercurrent to this film. On a spiritual level, I believe it will really strike a chord with those who have experienced bereavement. If Don’t Look Now was about the dangers of being consumed by grief then The Babadook is about learning to come to terms with it. This emotionally gripping, ultimately empowering theme is what gives the film real punch.
Consequently, The Babadook is not just the horror film of the year, it might be the horror film of the decade.