by Brian Surber
The thing missing from horror films is a human element. There are humans in it, to be sure, but they aren’t real. Most of the time characters in (bad) horror films are not fleshed out. They have one or two basic motives and they don’t stretch beyond what is needed of them as pawns. There can be and have been great horror films with characters that aren’t very interesting; The House of the Devil and Saw come to mind. Those films achieve their “greatness” status based on their technical artistic achievements. The Babadook, directed with gusto by newcomer Jennifer Kent, is so deeply rooted in character interest that it is elevated from not only the best horror film of the year but one of the best films of the year.
Delivered to us from the land down under, TheBabadook tells the story of Amelia and her son Samuel. That might seem like a set up with, “and they are stalked by her ex-husband turned killer” or “and a zombie apocalypse breaks out and his blood may be the cure,” to follow, but in fact the film is really about a mother and her son. It just has a really scary monster in it. Amelia’s husband died driving her to the hospital the day their son was born, and it seems neither of them have fully comes to terms with this tragic event. The son is hyper active and has been forced into some mature mindsets that he is not ready for. He subsequently acts out and doesn’t really know how to control or properly explore his emotions. His mother, on the other hand, is still wrecked with grief. She continues to struggle, shifting between loving her son and resenting him.
The son, one night, brings a book to his mother to read. It’s a strange book, the cover all red, that’s called Mister Babadook. “Where did you get this?” says the mother. “On the shelf.” replies the son. Not only is it never a good sign that you don’t know a book in your own home, but how is this issue not pressed further when the scary events start to occur? But I digress. The mother begins to read the book only to discover the book is horrible; promising to get under your skin, keep you awake at night, and make you wish you were dead. It tells the story of a monster who, once a person knows of its existence, will haunt that person forever. The son starts to claim to see The Babadook, who follows and torments him. Amelia at first doesn’t believe him but then begins to notice strange things happen as The Babadook begins to make itself known and invades their lives.
The film is practically all “things that go bump in the night” and boy, is it effective. We seldom see The Babadook itself, but its presence is felt at nearly all times. The film wisely relies on tension building rather than quick jump scares, and therefore is aptly able to dig deep into our fears about the dark. Shadows that may or may not be moving, lingering on deep, dark spaces that may or may not hold terror, Kent uses our expectations and imaginations to scare us. And once The Babadook is revealed and our suspicions about the dark are correct the film becomes all the more horrifying. The film almost leads the viewer to our own conclusion of, “Just because we don’t see something move in the dark right now, doesn’t mean it’s not there.”
The climax of the film asks some very difficult question about motherhood and the mindset of being a parent under very difficult circumstances. The love we feel for a child and how we try to mask our other feelings with said love. These are real human emotions being explored with just as much care and thought that gets put into our greatest dramas. The genius of the film is that the horror acts as a way to confront the, sometimes difficult, feelings that can come to the surface in the face and aftermath of tragedy. We are told to love our children no matter what. What happens when we cannot? When gentleness turns to resentment and resentment turns to hate. The fact that Amelia is so conflicted at times about how to not only treat her child but feel about him is incredibly rich storytelling, not just for horror films but all films.
As Amelia, Essie Davis gives a powerhouse of a performance. Not only is she great at being scared (an obvious must for horror actresses), but she is riveting throughout. Davis has to carry the entire film’s emotional weight and she does so with incredible ease. She is really quite stunning in the film.
What really makes The Babadook stand out, other than the fact that it is a horror film that is filled with true horror in an age where such a thing is a rarity, is that it is a film with much more on its mind than scares. It’s really about two people who need to learn to coexist for the sake of their own sanity. It’s about a mother who is grieving and trying to love her son just as much as it’s about a supernatural monster. The Babadook is a horror film that uses subtle techniques to build real terror, and real emotion to power its story to a genuinely thrilling and poignant conclusion. The biggest surprise found in The Babadook isn’t a jump scare or twist (although the film is scary as hell), the biggest surprise is the film’s heart.