The Babadook is one of those films for true die-hard horror aficionados, a breathtaking display of taut screenwriting and built up chills, guaranteed to make even the toughest genre buffs cringe and jump in their seats.
If you cooked up a cinematic stew consisting of Kubrick’s The Shining, Polanski’s Repulsion, Anderson’s Session 9, and everything that kicks ass about contemporary Australian horror films, you would get The Babadook.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother and meek orderly whose husband died in a car crash the day she went into labor with their son, Samuel. The movie opens with a surreal dream in which a pregnant Amelia is thrown around and up and down in a serenely quiet yet eerie replication of the tragic car accident. She wakes up alone in bed and is joined by her equally troubled young son, whom she may or may not resent, and it’s clear that these two haven’t had a good night’s sleep in a very long time.
Sleeplessness is a central theme in The Babadook, and in the grand echelon of great psychological horror films, insomnia contributes to the unhinging of the protagonist as well as the audience’s sense that reality is a thin thread waiting to be crossed.
From the get-go we have the sense that Samuel is your atypical nightmare child. He’s destructive, hostile, and prone to constructing dangerous booby-trap like weapons to kill an impending monster that may or may not exist. He may or may not be a sociopath, and by the time he’s taken out of school by his anxiety-ridden mother we don’t know whether to feel sorry for the fact that he’s never had a birthday party because his birthday coincides with his dad’s death, or whether to fear for Amelia’s well-being.
Life is hard for this grief-stricken, low-income family of two, but the introduction of a certain mysterious children’s book called “Mister Babadook” sets into motion the chain of events that serve as the film’s central catapult into home-possession insanity. The cursed book seems to have appeared out of thin air, and like all cursed objects it won’t go away. Its nursery rhyme prose along with pop-up illustrations of the Babadook—a black cloaked, flying monster with Tim Burton like claws for hands and a top-hat— seems to predict page for page Amelia and Samuel’s terrifying fate alone in that house.
That’s not to say the movie is predictable. On the contrary, completely unexpected chills emerge every other scene, whether it’s a hole in the kitchen wall full of roaches or a spooky television news segment Amelia watches late at night as she gradually loses sleep.
Adding to the claustrophobic unease are reoccurring and half-way concerned neighbors, a little white dog, and a perfectly cast bug-eyed, little kid. There’s a sense that Amelia won’t get much help from the outside world. The teachers and administrators at Samuel’s school don’t do much to curb his “significant behavioral problems”. A doctor prescribes Amelia sedatives which makes everything worse, and the police can’t be bothered with her claims of being stalked because she can’t present them with the cursed book, since she burnt it. Even Amelia’s own sister keeps her distance, wanting nothing to do with creepy Samuel and his claims of seeing a monster.
Much of The Babadook is ambiguous, but even the most uncertain aspects of the film only add to the pensive suspense and quick-cut, day-by-day pacing of dread filling each frame.
At the heart of The Babadook is the idea that madness can follow possession, and possession can follow madness. By the time we see the actual monster and the symbolic one, we are so completely unnerved that we are not so much shocked by its arrival as we are fully-fledged panicked, utterly fearful for the mother and son, feeling as if the Babadook is going to jump through the screen and enter our very souls and bedrooms.
If the ending seems to go against the grain of typical monster-in-the-basement horror films, it’s only because the entire universe writer and director Jennifer Kent has created remains an unknown void of familial pain and distrust. Kent has successfully created an aesthetically horrific world that is not easy to shake off after the movie is over. And this, above all, is what makes The Babadook so fucking scary.