Note: This review contains vaguely stated spoilers for the film and a rather oblique spoiler for Housebound.
* * *
The Babadook, 2014
Dir. Jennifer Kent
It may seem surprising, but Horror films are disproportionally concerned about the family. Generally, in the break down of the family, but also in it’s transcendent potential. The best horror films, the ones I am most interested in, are founded in things ancient; they are modern myths, legends, and fairy tales. The Babadook, the near universally acclaimed Australian horror film, is expressly a modern fairy tale about family. And while I wasn’t as ecstatic about it as some of the reviewers have been (large portions felt too familiar) it still manages to attest to the strength of and provide honest insight into motherhood.
The set up is par for the horror course: six years before the film begins, Amelia’s husband is killed driving her to the hospital to give birth to their son Sam. Understandably, Amelia appears to have some resentment towards Sam, primarily as Sam’s birthday approaches, which is when the action of the film occurs. Sam feels both guilt and anger about the loss of a father he never knew, constantly acts out in school, and is certain the world is filled with monsters lurking around every corner. One night Sam brings Amelia the creepiest pop-up book ever to read to him entitled, The Babadook (and I will be sincerely disappointed if they don’t sell reproductions of this book because I totally want one). And, as is the case in horror movies where you should never read anything aloud, this unleashes the titular monster. Of note is that at this point in the film, the scene in which they read the book is both the most frightening in the film (quite a feat), and also tells us everything the movie will do after that. It’s a risky move since horror films need surprise and shock to work, but it adds a sense of dread, a particular and rather undervalued element of horror in films today.
Though it’s not entirely clear at first that what we’re dealing with is supernatural. It’s kind of a requirement in horror films that a scientific solution will be presented and then the scientific treatment will fail. But here, Sam, in an excellent performance by the young Noah Wiseman, is so convincingly portrayed as a troubled, psychologically disturbed child, that it complicates one of the most annoying tropes in horror: that parents never believe their kids. As a child I was plagued, like Sam, by terribly vivid nightmares. I remember I’d refuse to go to bed in hopes of avoiding having them. I know I tested my parents’ patience, but they were quite understanding. So, it always bugs me when parents refuse to believe their kids in horror stories, if not due to my own experience, for the fact that the kids are always right (a tender exception is the believing father in Something Wicked This Way Comes, which was, largely for that scene, my favorite book as a pre-teen). Sam is, like I imagine children can sometimes be, a hard person to believe; a rough character to love who does dangerous, scary things. So,while the film tells us what it’s going to do, this adds a level of well-crafted disbelief.
Most horror films tend to have an excellent hook, a go-through-the-motions lead-up, then when all hell breaks loose the fun begins, and then you get a tacked on ending with a typically terrible coda. The Babadook is the exact inverse of that formula. It doesn’t really have a hook, the rising action is patient and rewarding, the climax is rather underwhelming and overly familiar ( it goes from the expressionistic psycho-spiritual breakdown of Repulsion to the whole ambiguous possession thing that has been done before; basically a revamped version of that weird Craig T. Nelson subplot from Poltergeist 2). But then, just as the film seems to go into a predictable resolution, it culminates in one of the most beautiful moments in recent horror films as an exhausted Amelia stands between her child and the darkest abyss with a love that even whatever hell The Babadook comes from cannot overcome. In the world of this film, The Babadook realizes it has come face to face with the most powerful and terrifying creature of all: a mother who loves her child.
If that isn’t enough, the coda is the most profound and revolutionary element of the film. We never see the face of Mr. Babadook, a face that it promised would destroy whoever looked at it. But Amelia does, and this look drives the monster into their basement (there is a lot of looking in this movie, and I think there is an essay here about how this movie figures watching TV and film history into it’s monster). At this point, like all good fairy tales, we have the lesson, presented in moving subtext (that isn’t really subtext anymore). The Babadook is the embodiment of Sam’s anger, his fear, and whatever other psychological conditions he has, and Amelia has come to terms with his problems. It is a moment that I assume every parent with a child must have at some point, and is perhaps felt most acutely by parents who have children with disability. And it is presented here in a powerful way that showcases the ability of horror films to still say truthful, poignant things about humanity.
The ending is extremely similar ( I guess only in horror, a genre built on repetition, can I call something both revolutionary and similar) to another excellent Oceanic horror film, and my favorite horror film of the year so far: Housebound. That one, from New Zealand, is also very much about a fractured family coming together, and in particular reconciling a troubled relationship between a mother and child. And like The Babadook it ends with the addition of a strange, new family member.
I had one concern about a scene in The Babadook. The timing of Mr. Babadook’s arrival is cross-cut with a scene in which Amelia tries to be sexually satisfied. One of the problematic things in horror films has been the conflation of female sexuality with the monstrous or its punishment with violence, and this seems to suggest the same, though I will defer to its director who, unlike myself, has actual experience with being a woman. I think it was meant to just demonstrate another potentially annoying reality of having a kid, as well as establish another level of potential resentment towards Sam, but the timing seemed to add that other layer to it.