The Babadook – Thoughtful horror with an undercurrent of emotion

“We scare because we care”

The past few years almost entirely crushed my hopes of ever walking out of a horror film pleased. After an underwhelming experience with the ever so hyped The Conjuring I had come around to accept the fact that the age of artistic horror was over, and then along came this one. For a true-blue horror enthusiast like me, The Babadook stands for everything that today’s horror movies aren’t. And yes, that’s a really, really good thing if you ask me. Horror is extremely diverse, and I enjoy most variations (with the casual exception of zombies) and this is a delight for fans of psychological horror and creepypasta. I use the above line from the Pixar movie Monsters, Inc. to stand for something entirely different, something that has been lacking in all the horror films I’ve seen this year. In the form of a pale distressing kid and his worn out, widowed mother, this film has given us characters, as opposed to wooden male models and scream queens. *cough* Annabelle *cough* The Babadook is the story of a widowed mother and her seven year-old, who live through each day with the loss of the father crushing down on them. Then a strange and terrible bedtime storybook finds their way into their strained relationship. Fair warning, this is not your run-of-the-mill monster flick, so do not go into this movie expecting dollops of gore and splatters of blood spewn all across the screen, unless your intent is to come out disappointed. This is a film that manages to blend together the genres of psychological and impressionist horror with adequately timed scares to spill your popcorn and soda over.

The single element that can be pinpointed to as the source of the movie’s haunting mysticism is the incredible level of effort by Essie Davis, who plays the most powerful and moving role of the mother, in a performance that one would not witness in any other horror film. Her art is noticeable not only in her brilliantly maniacal turn in the last act, but also the image of a frightened and tired mother, coping with her husband’s loss, which she manages to pull off in a most nuanced manner.The boy (I shan’t call him that!) played by Noah Wiseman, I felt was successful in his portrayal of an insanely annoying and distressing child, but wasn’t compelling until the very last act of the movie. Although I hate myself for critiquing a seven year-old’s acting chops, there was many an awkward moment from the actor. This did take away from the first two-thirds of the movie for me, but then toward the final act, he manages to deliver, and all is well. The glue that holds this movie together is the strained relationship between the mother and child, which is also heavily contributing to the horror. On the superficial level, this does seem to be an impressive creature-horror flick, but what compels me to sing praise for it is the underlying sensation of depression and the dual psychological meaning to the creature that is the Babadook. The mother is clearly still combating the loss of her husband, who was her crutch, the only thing she could lean onto and rely on. The son seems unbalanced due to the queer treatment he is accorded by his mother and most around him. In fact, for most of the movie, we see a truly horrified and crouching figure of the son, indicative of the detached love he gets from his mother, a sort of care that does not reach the point of love. It is into such a depressing household that the Babadook is introduced, and it is the broken psyche of the mother that the creature attacks. The film, in its central human theme, treats its characters the way The Shining did with Jack and Danny. The overbearing horror revolves around and maybe even seen as a projection of the eroding mind of the adult, whereas the supernaturally inclined child is made the watching victim.

The Babadook can be interpreted to be the personification (monsterification, to be more precise) of the depression crushing the mother’s mind, hallowed by the lack of protection she feels after her husband’s death. This becomes very clear as she starts seeing the Babadook wherever she went, clouding her mind and causing her to lose hold of the strings to her own sanity. The film beautifully captures the changing relationship between the mother and son, from being detached and burdensome, to being a quaint picture of love and joy, all ironically caused by the Babadook. The film is an overarching tale of depression and fear tugging and pulling at the mother-son relationship, only to leave it vulcanized. There are many scenes which are contrasted with themselves throughout the movie, like the happy scene of the neighbour in her home being turned to one of terror, thus negating possibly the only source of happiness the mother gets through her tiring day. This is also seen with the mother’s turn from wanting her son to stay asleep so she can remain peaceful, to the overbearing need for the son’s waking company once the fear takes a hold of her. Truly, the most chilling moments of horror are not the ones involving the Babadook, but the effect that it leaves on the mother. The scenes where the mother turns on her own son, peeing in his pants, are easily the most horrific scenes that stick with you, making the creature itself seem friendly in comparison.

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All that said, the way the movie ended the tale of the Babadook seemed strange once we dwell into what the creature represents. This might be a problem I alone have with the movie, but where the creature ended up left me doubtful, at the very least. While I was pleased with how the tale left the human characters, the ending thought of the Babadook held prisoner (or pet), tamed in the basement of the house did not have the same effect. The underlying theme of the movie, at least the way I understand it, is one of depression and the resultant fever the characters’ minds go through. The taming and stowing away of the Babadook is an allusion as to how the depression and feeling of loss shall continue to haunt the mother for years, only overpowered and tamed by the newfound love she has for her son, but somehow it does not seem satisfactory, and there is definitely something odd about that end. The movie feels like stepping too deep into the monster side of things, for what it had built up to that point. It does get the message across, but it seemed to me that it was shown quite bluntly and with too much reliance on the monster’s physicality. With the amount of layering and depth the movie dealt with, this is indeed something that leaves me with a snag at the back of my mind, and something which I felt could have been dealt with in a better way.

The movie thrives in tiny, intelligent design and details that elevate the film to a whole different level. It is directed by Jennifer Kent, who is a beginner director, but to call her an amateur would be sinful. She is the careful student who has spent years analyzing and absorbing the art of various masters of horror, and then produces a clever self-holding work that does not reach out to seem like homage, but works best in application. The movie is Lynchian in the number of metaphorical elements it inserts cleverly into otherwise randomly seeming scenes, especially those around the television. In the surfing of television channels there are included a number of images that affect the mother in some way, which find their mark later on. The direction is quite beautiful, something that has scarcely been used with the horror genre, with a unique touch from a use of stop-motion scenes that stay on the screen so briefly that if you blink, you might just miss them. But what they do result in are rare magical moments of strange motion that disturb to the very core, that would otherwise be handed over to CGI. One very memorable shot is one well into the final act where the mother, sitting turned away from the boy, is made to shift ever so slightly, replicating and mirroring shivers that are running down the viewer’s spine. This same technique is also used to show the passing of the night, usually when the mother goes to bed. The sudden pixel-like shifting of lights to the break of a new dawn is sure to startle you in your seats, as clever they are being placed soon after moments of heightened suspense. The movie is also painted in hues of grey, inky black and dreary blue. This manages to make pop the moments of horror and the allusions to the Babadook, all set against a backdrop of depression and turmoil.

Sound plays an important role in any horror film worth its penny, and here it is seen executed to a level of brilliance, remaining awfully quiet throughout scenes, shifting to a shrill screeching of bugs to denote the presence of evil, and then the sharp stiffening noises of the creature. I took special note of the sound exuding from the Babadook itself, which was unnaturally raw and unnerving, reminiscent of a million creaking footboards and howling winds. I had not seen the trailer to the movie before actually watching it, and therefore had a peculiarly awkward moment when my heart jumped to the tip of my throat, as I heard it utter its name. I would recommend all of you to go into the movie unknowing of the trailer as I was, as for the fantastic horror piece it is, it deserves that from you. There are times when the use of the sound is most haunting, and surprisingly, it is not during the scenes with the Babadook. Sudden silences and dragging out of sound can be experienced at the times of emotional or mental distress for the mother. This is most notable in the scenes where the mother is watching the television, hoping to stay awake, and seeing herself breeze through the channels, the sound takes a strange and nauseating tone. I was also pleasantly surprised at the minimal amount of screaming involved, for being a horror movie. It is so hard to find a tale of horror that does not resort to jump scares and sudden screams to keep your hearts beating. I do admit they are a necessary measure, for if not for them, you would find yourself falling asleep to the rhythm of your bored un-entertained heart.

Being one of the few horror movies to truly scare me and leave my mind disturbed even hours after watching, The Babadook left me pleased with the experience and with hope for the future of the horror genre, one I hold close to heart. We can hope to see many more masterful pieces from Kent, seeing as how she excelled in her debut. This is a compelling tale of horror that seems even more terrifying and dreadful once you start peeling away at the creature, to see the psychological trauma beneath.

Rating: 7.7/10

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One thought on “The Babadook – Thoughtful horror with an undercurrent of emotion

  1. Pingback: The Best of 2014 in Film | DavidandStan Movies

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