It is monumentally refreshing to find a horror picture that not only holds its own against other landmark chillers, but that also earns a place in the pedestal of the year’s best cinema. The Babadook takes its medium seriously, borrowing and learning from electric horror puppeteers. There’s a touch of Lynch, Carpenter, del Toro, and even Friedkin all mashed up in its pithy 95 minute running time. Jennifer Kent has not only created a timeless villain in the eponymous creature (which will surely find its way onto Halloween-stocked shelves in upcoming years) but more importantly she has crafted a timeless tale of motherhood, childhood, and the deep gulf that lies between them.
Australian gem Essie Davis is Amelia, a single mother at the end of her tether trying to cope with the erratic and wayward mind of her young son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Sam’s father died en route to the maternity ward when Amelia was giving birth, and thus Amelia’s relationship with her son is muddied by a complex entanglement of mixed emotions. He represents for her both the miracle of life and a brutal reminder of the searing pain of death. Occasionally we see Amelia’s grief-stricken interior unleashed at her son, whose incessantly curious questions and demands never allow her a second to herself. It’s implied that Samuel may be autistic or require some special attention, but his emotional needs are the same as any other child growing up without a father. Unfortunately the rest of the world – namely Amelia’s friends and Samuel’s school teachers – do not see it that way, and his disruptive nature continually gets him into trouble.
At night, Samuel clings to his mother for comfort, and she must routinely prove to him that there are no monsters lurking beneath his bed, inside his wardrobe, or watching from the shadows. Samuel’s paranoid imagination never lets up, and Amelia is regularly starved of a decent night’s sleep. At bedtime, Amelia reads to Samuel classic children’s tales, but one night she allows him to choose a book for himself. From the shelf, Samuel returns with a mysteriously dark and previously unseen book, The Babadook, which tells of a sinister shadowy being that will haunt and scare until its victims beg for death. Shocked and appalled, Amelia attempts numerous times to destroy the book, but each time it finds its way back into their home, and with each reading its narrative grows more and more twisted and personal.
Before long, Amelia and Samuel begin hearing and seeing the monstrous Babadook. It develops a taste for their home, and shows no sign of letting up. Kent is a master of suspense, and we very rarely of course see the creature itself – at least not in its entirety – which appears to resemble something of a cross between Murnau’s Nosferatu and Craven’s Freddy Krueger, only sporting a towering top hat and thick black cloak. What we do see of the Babadook is just enough to give us the creeps, and each of its harrowing appearances shoots up every single hair on the back of your neck (especially with its shrill ET-on-helium whisper). In the most potent of the Babadook’s visits, Amelia resorts to ‘shielding’ herself under her duvet covers, praying that this will somehow make the creature give up or disappear. It’s highly reminiscent of a child hiding from their nightmares, and it proves just as fruitless.
Is the Babadook a symbolic black representation of Amelia’s depression? Does it represent the growing abyss between mother and son? Does this ‘children’s book’ which Amelia reluctantly reads signify not only the breakdown of Samuel’s bedtime reading, but arguably the last remaining mutual connection between them? Freud would have a field day with this film. It seems that Amelia’s adult anxieties have populated and corrupted the innocent world of Samuel’s childhood via the creepy pop-up volume. Or maybe, worst of all, the Babadook doesn’t signify anything. Perhaps the Babadook is nothing more than a sinister spectral creature hell-bent on haunting and wreaking havoc. That’s certainly much more terrifying.
Young Noah Wiseman is something of a revelation; his pale-faced sincerity pulls all of the right strings. As the film (and Amelia’s mental deterioration) progresses, Samuel emerges more and more like the adult out of the two of them. Amelia thinks she can simply sleep off or hide from her demons, but it is Samuel who dares to tackle their issues head-on, bravely coming to the protection of his mother armed with home-made weapons and lionhearted courage. And we can’t ignore the masturbation scene in which Amelia, taking a moment for herself, is interrupted by Samuel as he bursts into her room. Is there something Oedipal going on here? When Samuel’s father died on the way to the hospital, did Samuel ‘replace’ him in some way as the dominant masculine figure in Amelia’s life?
Perhaps it’s just too reductive to attempt to compartmentalise a film like The Babadook, which succeeds on its own terms without invasive analysis. Jennifer Kent doesn’t want us to get bogged down in the details of where Amelia and Samuel went wrong. What’s important is how the madness and terror of the Babadook brings them closer together. The Babadook warns, “the more you deny, the stronger I get.” There’s no better or more poignant analogy for the problems the mother and son undergo as a family. The message is clear. You can’t just sweep your dysfunctional issues under a rug and hope that they’ll disappear; it’s no use for them to pretend that their troubles are invisible. The only way for Amelia and Samuel to overcome their difficulties is to confront them head on: to look them straight in the eye and proudly proclaim “we’re not afraid of you”.