“If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”
Here is a terrifying little film about a woman coming unraveled under the weight of her own grief. Opening this Friday in theaters, The Babadook strikes notes of The Shining and Dark Water, where jump-scares and paranormal are downplayed while psychological terror and mental instability are the key themes. This Aussie import is a 90-minute dive into madness that will be misunderstood by half the audience, if only because director Jennifer Kent delves deeper than the average modern horror flick.
Early on, while checking out at the grocer, a widow reins in her son who has been showing a magic trick to another child and her mother near the exit. When the topic wanders to the girl’s father, the son pipes up matter-of-factly and says “My dad’s in the cemetery, he got killed driving mum to the hospital to have me.” Immediately the widow apologizes, hushing the boy, while the lady offers what fleeting sympathy she can. This small exchange, and the social acceptability of grief, is one of the main themes in this haunting and beautifully sad film.
“I’ll kill the monster when it comes… I’ll smash its head in.”
Seven years after her husband is killed on the way to the hospital, the widow Amelia (played brilliantly by Essie Davis) struggles to cope with her son Samuel’s increasingly erratic and violent behavior in school and at home. He’s been building weapons and play-fighting against an unknown and seemingly pretend monster, and everyone from his aunt to his teachers is plainly sick of his strange behavior. One of the main themes the director touches on is the social acceptability of grief and mental illness, and it’s expertly handled by both the script and the actors. There is a genuine sense of a crowd of people standing around judging and whispering as this poor family smolders in ruins before them.
Instead of loud noises in dark corners, which there are plenty of in The Babadook, the terror comes from a much more grounded and accessible place. The scenes in which an increasingly unstable Amelia and and Samuel in public become suspenseful in themselves as the audience waits for Samuel to act out in some disturbing way… Usually leading to someone else getting hurt. It forces the audience to confront their own feelings on troubled children and the roots of behavior, and elevates this more than just a scary movie.
“Mrs. Benning… We’ve had the talks, we’ve had the sessions with the counselor…”
One night when bed time rolls around, the boy pulls a mysterious book off the shelf… A menacing, red-bound children’s book that tells the story of Mister Babadook, a monster that haunts its pages. Soon bumps in the night and strange noises plague the widow and her son, leading to their increasing isolation from family and friends as her behavior becomes even more unstable than his. After she suspects the book has something to do with her son’s behavior she tears it up and throws it away, only to have it show up again, taped together, with new and terrifying pages added to the end. As Amelia descends into insomnia-fueled insanity, it falls on seven year-old Samuel to protect himself and save his mother from the evil Mister Babadook.
For those who don’t wish to know any more, just know that The Babadook might have a funny-sounding name, but there is nothing funny about this movie. It is a tight, well-written, and brilliantly acted little film that not only tells the story of a family haunted by a dark menace threatening to destroy it from the inside… But also shines a light on how society can so easily weed out and toss aside anyone who can’t keep their emotions or their grief to themselves.
For those that wish to know a little more, read on:
First of all, what makes this movie so good in my eyes, is that as the story progresses and Amelia’s behavior grows increasingly violent and dangerous, the focus stays on her. It doesn’t shift to some supernatural explanation for anything. While I hate to divulge important plot points, I think some people will miss the twist because of the way it’s handled by the story. There is no, “oh it was so-and-so the whole time” twist… Instead we slowly realize that there is no Mister Babadook… and that the sleep-deprived hallucinations are all just manifestations of Amelia’s grief. What makes this film so frightening, is that there is no monster. Or more to the point, Mommy is the monster.
Amelia has not been allowed to grieve for her husband, who we find out was brutally decapitated in the accident. She has had to suck it up for her son and for her job and for herself. Instead of feeling the pain and dealing with the loss, she stuffs it away, literally, in the basement and chooses to deny its existence. After seven years, her grief has taken on a life of its own. It has seeped in through the floorboards and up from under the beds in the form of the Babadook… And eventually it consumes Amelia, who comes dangerously close to killing that which she secretly blames for her loss… Samuel.
Every parent has had that moment where they stop and wonder if their kid is normal. The Babadook plays off our insecurities, our fears, and our tendency to deny that which can affect us the most. It’s only when Amelia confronts the Babadook, seeing it for what it really is, that it flees to the basement… Where it stays docile while the family finds normalcy upstairs.
Grief never goes away. It’s up to us whether we can stare it in the face and acknowledge it, or let it ruin our lives like poison in our veins. In the end, it’s just another ghost wandering the halls.