Sometimes, horror is great for the initial shock value. You’re looking for something that will scare you RIGHT. NOW. but you want to be able to rest easy after it’s done, or at least the next night. Other times, the mark of strong horror is how a movie will stay with you, plucking at the strings of your brain long after the final credits have rolled. Apparently, it is that variety of horror that I’m currently kicking on, with the recent movies I’ve consumed.
Around a month ago, I took in the movie It Follows, and proceeded to spout piles of words trying to capture my thoughts on it. Thankfully, I never once assumed that writing a blog post would be the end of my musings, as It Follows jumps into my brain every once in a while (generally, when I’m relatively alone). The same goes for another movie that I took in recently; an Australian piece entitled
In some ways, The Babadook holds a certain level of kinship with It Follows. Both movies feature strong women in lead roles. Both make it clear that these women are victims of whatever terrible curse is coming for them. And, of course, both are definitely part of a style of horror where the strongest scares lurk in the back of the viewer’s mind. However, even with all of those similarities, the two movies could not be more different.
In The Babadook, we are introduced to Amelia (Essie Davis) and Samuel (Noah Wiseman), a tight-knit little family struggling to get by in their day-to-day lives. The movie actually kicks off with a nightmare of Amelia’s, which is also a flashback to the day Samuel was born. Amelia is a single mother, trying desperately to make life worthwhile for her son. Samuel, for his part, is a child who is plagued by imaginary monsters, so much so that he builds complicated weapons to fend them off. Lurking throughout for both Samuel and Amelia is the memory, or at least imagery, of Oskar (Benjamin Winspear), Sam’s father who died in a car crash bringing the pregnant Amelia to the hospital.
The events of the film are set in the days before Sam’s birthday, and Oskar hangs over the film like a shroud. Much of the setting is dingy, with muted colors. Samuel has been acting out, making it harder for him to form real connections with other children. Amelia, troubled with insomnia of her own and Sam’s night terrors, is bedraggled, trying to balance her life as an elder-care nurse and a single mother. The only person who seems to constantly care for Sam and Amelia is their neighbor, Mrs. Roach (Barbara West), but Amelia is unwilling to burden the older woman more than necessary. In short, their life is by no means idyllic.
That imperfect life starts to take a darker turn when Samuel requests that Amelia read a specific book for his bedtime. That book is Mr. Babadook, a dark and twisted pop-up book that is clearly not meant for children. In the book, the characters are made aware of “Mr. Babadook”, and simply being aware of the entity gives him free rein to torment his victim. Clearly troubled by the story, Amelia stops reading it and hides it, hoping that Samuel will forget it ever existed. From that point forward, the two are plagued by supernatural occurrences, and even efforts to destroy the book are thwarted. For Amelia and Samuel, “Mr. Babadook” has become real, and he is coming for them.
It would seem on the surface that The Babadook is a story about a supernatural demon coming to kill off innocent victims, and, while parts of the film are certainly presented in that fashion, that isn’t at all the main point of the film. This is truly displayed at the end of the movie, when the drab colors are replaced with bright sunshine and an air of vibrancy, despite the darker undertones of the final scenes. No, what The Babadook is dealing with is much more insidious. One of the points made is that, once you’re aware of the Babadook, it will keep coming for you, destroying every aspect of your life. And yet, the Babadook is not truly an external force. It is an internal one, stemming from the mind. The Babadook is an embodiment of grief, of despair, and of a lingering, unprocessed depression.
The metaphor, and deeper meaning, of The Babadook is why this particular film has resonated, and definitely struck a nerve. After all, refusing to process the darker thoughts can certainly lead to aspects of life being stripped away and destroyed. Left to linger long enough, and the darkness can overtake a person, until they feel they are left with no options towards moving forward. The Babadook IS this unprocessed grief, and the vehicle that makes us aware of it is often a trauma that is left forgotten, instead of dealt with. In the film, the trauma is the accident that simultaneously handed Amelia her son, while stripping away her husband.
While there are many scenes in The Babadook that are played straight for scares, the more effective scenes come from watching the family unit of Amelia and Samuel crumble. The hints are there before the book is ever discovered, but the book’s presence serves as an accelerant. It is the metaphorical gasoline being poured on top of the fire of dysfunction already present in the house. Samuel may have never met his father, but he is clearly aware of who the man was, and what his death has done to Amelia. The fact that Amelia clearly sees Oskar in aspects of Sam’s activities only makes that gulf wider, allowing for the darkness of the Babadook to fill the void.
It isn’t uncommon, especially in recent years, for horror to cast children in critical roles, but it’s hard to imagine a child actor doing a better job than Noah Wiseman did as Samuel. Throughout large swaths of the movie, there is an urge in the viewer to tell Samuel to behave, or else. He shows genuine tenderness towards his mother, but the flip side of the coin is far too many moments of pure aggravation. The lines are etched on Amelia’s face, and it could initially seem like simply another grating child actor being thrust into a film that they can’t handle. And yet, we, the viewer, are SUPPOSED to be aggravated by everything Samuel does. We’re supposed to reach a tipping point with him; not to the same extent that Amelia does, but we are not let off of the hook. Samuel is grating to truly help the audience identify with Amelia, and see how frazzled she is trying to keep it all together. Without that connection, the moments of true darkness would miss the mark completely.
That isn’t to say that The Babadook is a perfect movie, or that everyone will want to watch it over and over. Neither of those points is true. There are some scenes within the film that feel almost as though they were lifted from a different, less psychological film. And, while some will certainly sit down to watch The Babadook again, it’s a hard one to stomach multiple viewings of, especially for those who experience some of the same despair of Amelia. The Babadook doesn’t pull any punches, especially when things get worse, and while it doesn’t all work, it does all carry an impact.
I mentioned above that, much like It Follows, The Babadook has stayed with me. There are nights when I find myself replaying scenes over in my own mind. I have put myself into Amelia’s shoes, and see how I could have ended up along a similar path, had I not taken the steps I did to get better. The ending, which on first viewing seemed somewhat contrived, actually now is one of the scenes that refuses to let go, and, truth be told, I’m not going to. Besides, if I completely washed my mind clear of the ending to The Babadook, then I didn’t really get the message the film was trying to send.
Is The Babadook for you? The only way to answer that is with a strong “maybe”. It is an unforgiving tale, one that forces the viewer to watch a family dynamic shatter because they refuse to process what has come before. There is still hope in the world of the movie, but it is darkened by reality. Other reviewers have referred to The Babadook as being “unflinching”, and it’s hard to argue with the usage of the word. Most viewers will not be able to have the same adjective applied to them after they see it.