Synopsis: Amelia (AFI Award winner Essie Davis, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, The Slap) is a single mother plagued by the violent death of her husband. When a disturbing storybook called “Mister Babadook” turns up at her house, she is forced to battle with her son’s deep-seated fear of a monster. Soon she discovers a sinister presence all around her.
A chilling tale of unseen and otherworldly horror in the haunting tradition of The Orphanage, Jennifer Kent’s visceral journey into the heart of fear itself is as terrifying as it is believable.
The Babadook 8.25
eyelights: the performances. the well-conceived creep factor. its audio-visual style.
the nonsensical ending.
“Don’t let it in!”
What’s in a name? That which we call a Babadook, by any other name would scare as easily.
Frankly, when I first heard of ‘The Babadook’, in 2015, I was less than impressed with its title. But I kept hearing that it was a “must-see” – not just from critics but from close friends as well. It was one of two standout horror films of the last year, along with ‘It Follows‘.
So I watched it, despite its title and spurred onward by a friend who suggested it for Hallowe’en.
It was excellent: while the core story is simplistic, the performances are stunning, the mood is eerie as !@#$, the visuals were crafted with the utmost attention and even its aural quality was dramatic. It wasn’t a perfect film by any standard, but it was certainly a memorable one.
But what the heck is a “babadook”? In this story, it’s the evil spirit that torments a widow and her young son. There are various definitions of the word, however: One source states it’s an anagram for “a bad book”, another says it’s Hindi, and yet another says it’s Serbian.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. “Babadook” is also a perfect word for a weird creature from a kid’s book – which is where Amelia and Samuel first encounter the monster. It’s a nonsensical word that would please the ear of a child, so it completely makes sense contextually.
Samuel is obsessed with monsters, and constantly talks about fighting them off (he even built himself gadgets for his eventual encounters) and protecting his mom; he doesn’t seem afraid of them. But Samuel is scaring all the other children. And their parents.
No one likes him.
This causes much grief for Amelia, who hasn’t yet dealt with her husband’s passing and now has to contend with troubled relationships due to her son’s erratic behaviour. She is growing isolated and under terrible pressure; she just can’t seem to get a handle on Samuel.
Writer-director Jennifer Kent says that she wanted to show how challenging parenting can be for many mothers, and she does an incredible job of it here: I mean, what do you do with a child who clings to you at all times, but can’t be tamed? Especially when you’re single?
Amelia’s patience is exhausted and her nerves are frayed. So, naturally, when she starts to see and hear unusual things around the house, she dismisses them; she just can’t deal with it. She also begins to question her sanity, as do we, when those horrific sights mysteriously vanish.
But we know that something more is amiss, and that’s where the tension builds. It’s quite clear that the book, ‘Mister Babadook’, keeps reappearing due to some supernatural force, not some strange stalker (as Amelia believes, initially). We can only watch the escalation, in horror.
…clutching our armrests.
Unfortunately, the film loses some of its edge when Amelia and Samuel finally begin to confront the Babadook (or is that the reverse…?). Then the picture become more akin to ‘Poltergeist‘, so it’s less interesting: it’s less about the psychological buildup; it’s more visceral.
Still, thanks to the superb performances of Essie Davis as Amelia and Noah Wiseman as Samuel, it’s an incredible experience. Davis makes it so difficult to not empathize with Amelia, even as she makes poor choices and loses her composure completely – in that context, anyone would.
Davis is truly the bedrock of the piece; Amelia’s weariness is etched into her face to such an extent that you believe she is on the edge of sanity.
But Wiseman is equally stunning. While he sometimes overdoes it, given that his eccentric, wild-eyed character is a hyperactive little freak who bops about, breaks things, and screeches when displeased, it seems almost in character. Ultimately, Samuel was a nightmare, which is perfect.
Beyond that, I also quite enjoyed the visual quality of ‘The Babadook’: The undersaturated, grim look of the picture was a hit with everyone I watched it with; I especially liked how inky it was. I also enjoyed the storybook aspects of the picture, from the opening credits to ‘Mister Babadook’.
…eerie though it may be.
The surround activity also contributed greatly to the film: I loved when voices and other sounds crept around the room (something that was far more apparent on the blu-ray than on the DVD). Granted, the bass was over-utilized in some areas but, overall, it was pure listening pleasure.
However, while I enjoyed most of the movie, even as it devolved into somewhat familiar territory in the third act, I had a terrible time with the ending: I just couldn’t believe that the Babadook would become the family pet, so to speak, by feeding him fresh worms in the basement daily.
Really…? Is that all it wanted?
It bothered me even the second time I watched it: even though Amelia gets REALLY upset at the Babadook in the end and finally defends her family against it through threats, I couldn’t help but wonder if that was enough to put it in its place; it left me incredulous, even though it’s fantasy.
However, I’ve since read something which puts everything in perspective: the Babadook can be seen as the supernatural embodiment of the grief that Amelia has been holding onto for well over five years. It is destroying her psychically and it’s now about to destroy what’s left of her family.
When Samuel reassures her that he’ll defend her and that he won’t let it kill her, he is referring to her overwhelming grief. And when the Babadook starts to take over their home life, it’s because Amelia has let her grief completely overrun her. It’s also why she’s losing a grip on her sanity.
She hasn’t been coping with the death of her husband, and her grief has quite literally become the monster in the room.
So, ultimately, if one looks at ‘The Babadook’ as not just your typical monster movie, but as a metaphor for a deep psychological wound that slowly destroys its host, it actually comes together. In fact, it makes it much more compelling. And I believe that it even becomes a near-perfect film.
I will likely have to watch it yet again. It now makes sense that she allowed Samuel to get out of hand the way that he did. It now makes sense that the Babadook is relegated to the basement and that, as scary as it is, it becomes easier for Amelia and Samuel to handle every day.
Amelia is now confronting her grief. And, in so doing, it loses its power over her.
Yes, I highly recommend ‘The Babadook’. See it at the big screen if you get a chance, but, if not, see it on blu-ray: it’s too visually and aurally-rich to stream it or even watch it on DVD (trust me, I’ve compared the two). See it on a large telly with a decent sound system.
But be prepared for a wrenching and terrifying portrayal of loss and grief. ‘The Babadook’ is a refreshing take on that kind of story: Instead of being a clichéd melodrama, it rejigs the setting into one of the most memorable and intelligent horror films in recent memory.
Date of viewing: October 31, 2015