Modern Masterpiece: The Babadook

by Louie Carroll

-”BAA BA DUK DUK DUUUK”

If you’ve seen The Babadook then you almost definitely read that with a particular voice in your head.  If you haven’t seen it then here’s an argument as to why you should rectify that immediately.

Horror films like The Babadook are a rarity these days.  This offering from director Jennifer Kent has more in common with classic’s such as Rosemary’s Baby and Don’t Look Now, than it does with any of it’s contemporaries.  In these films the event that unfold on screen is only half of what the film is about, scratch beneath the surface and there’s something even darker taking place.  The film charts single mother Amelia’s (Essie Davis) struggle to raise her extremely difficult son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), in the wake of her husband’s tragic death.  The introduction of the titular monster into their lives only makes an existing situation much worse.

At the heart of what makes The Babadook so unsettling is not bloodsuckers or ghost’s roaming the halls, ultimately it’s not even Mr. Babadook (although he is one of the greatest horror creations in recent years, more on that later).  The real scares come from something much closer to home.

The first half of the film, which doesn’t even feature the monster, is some of the most distressing drama you’re likely to see in any film anywhere, let alone a horror.  This is primarily a mother dealing with her brat of a son.  And what a brat Samuel is.  He shout’s, breaks windows, pulls hair and grapples with his mother in bed.  By the time supernatural elements make their presence known, Amelia and the audience are already emotionally drained.

The Babadook is an incredibly well directed film.  Kent weaves the cinematography, art direction and sound design seamlessly to create a cacophony of dread that pervades every corner of the film.  The suburban Australian house where most of the torment takes place would run any haunted mansion of torture porn dungeon close in the “places you’d least like to live pole”.

Every floorboard and door groan unforgivingly.  In fact everything that can creak does.  The grey paint on the walls is ever so slightly cracking and chipping away, not unlike Amelia’s own psyche.  Apparently lampshades are less of a thing in Australia, every scene is harshly lit, exaggerating the gaunt features of both mother and son.  Kent realizes that the most affecting horror to be seen anywhere in the film emanates from Davis’ face.  The camera lingers on her in close up for long periods of time.  The director wisely trusts her actor to do most of the dramatic heavy lifting.

Davis’ performance, the strongest of any last year is tough to watch throughout.  Her hair always unkempt, any alone time is spent with her head in her hands.  At times the character simply looks vacant, opting out of her deeply unpleasant situation.  It’s an incredibly challenging performance, one that requires the actor to go from distressed but loving mother to something a bit more unsettling, she manages this without the jump ever feeling jarring.

Never mind the Babadook, at times Noah Wiseman’s performance as Samuel stands alone as just as disturbing a monster.  Contorting his face to resemble Munch’s Scream painting.  Samuel kicks and screams his way through the film before undergoing something of a change before the end of the film, as does his mother.  It’s a testament to the excellence of the film that this article has gone on so long with so little mention of the eponymous monster.  Mr. Babadook isn’t just a Bogeyman, he towers over the lives of Amelia and Samuel as a manifestation of all that causes them grief.

However, when it comes to actually showing the creature on screen, the film doesn’t skimp.  Part boggart, part Nosferatu, the Babadook scuttles in the shadows, his top hat and long spindly fingers will pass into the horror canon as instantly recognizable iconography.  He’s brought to life mostly through stop motion and sound design.  Dear God that sound!  It’s impossible to think of the Babadook’s groan without shuddering.  It’s a general rule in recent horror movies that they are unable to sustain their premise over the length of their runtime.  Collapsing in the final third.  Thankfully Kent steers the film flawlessly towards the climax even when the stakes increase.  Horror is a genre that lends itself to a metaphorical subtext, The Babadook is a great example of this.  It functions as a highly effective scary movie, although perhaps not the kind you bring a date to.  On a deeper level it is a meditation on grief and parenthood.  The film’s final scene might feel a little blatant but by that stage the film has earned any small missteps it makes.

Ultimately, The Babadook stays in the mind long after you’ve stopped watching.  Kent’s direction and Davis’ performance can be admired and pondered over for the rest of your day.  And when you’re finished doing that, good luck trying to sleep at night!