The Babadook (2014)
“If it’s in a word. Or it’s in a look. You can’t get rid of … The Babadook”
The Babadook (2014)
Director: Jennifer Kent
Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall
Synopsis: A single mother, plagued by the violent death of her husband, battles with her son’s fear of a monster lurking in the house, but soon discovers a sinister presence all around her.
WARNING! This review contains SPOILERS!
There can be few things more unsettling than a creature that reveals its true nature only after it has insinuated its way into your home. The Babadook is one such intruder: it disguises itself as a horror movie, when really it’s a drama chronicling the psychological disintegration of a woman unable to come to terms with the death of her husband. That’s not to say The Babadook is a bad movie – it’s just not the one many will have been misled into believing it was. Its hook – the sinister title character – is nothing more than a barely-glimpsed figment of a traumatised and sleep-deprived imagination.
The story is more or less a two-hander, taking place largely in the drab, claustrophobic home of Amelia (Essie Davis) and her six-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). A well-crafted opening dream sequence not only shows us how Amelia’s husband lost his life when their car crashed on the way to the hospital for Samuel’s birth, but also gives a strong hint of how reality and illusion will become almost indistinguishable through the course of the movie. Six years on, and Amelia is still struggling to cope with her husband’s death and the problem of its anniversary coinciding with Samuel’s birthday. Her condition isn’t helped by the fact that, although he’s loving and protective, Samuel is a difficult child, and is often in trouble at school for fighting with other children.
One evening, when Samuel asks his mother to read to him from a book called The Babadook, she is alarmed by its dark content, which is horrific enough to make her son hysterical with fear. While Essie strives to temper the boy’s growing pre-occupation with the threat of Babadook, she becomes increasingly aware of a sinister force within the house which seems intent on harming both her and her child.
First-time writer and director Jennifer Kent has found a way of blending two storylines which usually have no place together in one film, and by doing so she creates a uniquely harrowing perspective on conventional horror tropes while realistically capturing the real horrors suffered by those in the grip of a psychological dementia. Unfortunately, while it might resonate with those who have first-hand experience of the condition with which Amelia is afflicted, her plight, and that of her intensely annoying son, is something of a slog. Even worse, it’s a slog with no satisfactory pay-off.
Amelia’s worsening state of mental health is mapped out with nerve-strumming intensity but, once it becomes clear that the Babadook is a manifestation of her own psychological trauma, the story is drained of most of its suspense. Amelia might harm herself or her son, but the Babadook won’t because it doesn’t exist outside of her tortured mind. That leaves Kent with one of two options – dark or light – and she opts for the light in a way that’s consistent with the storyline but requires her to manufacture some ridiculous moments in order to pull it off. When Amelia goes all Jack Torrance on him, little six-year-old Samuel takes his mum down with laughable ease by making use of the kind of booby traps that would make Macauley Culkin proud. And Amelia’s plight is then resolved by – how would your therapist put it? – letting it all out. Ultimately, the very device that makes The Babadook so clever – the deliberate blurring of the line between metaphor and realism – proves to be Kent’s undoing. By slavishly sticking to that contrivance she provides her audience with a sunny ending that undermines the dark areas she has explored. That misguided ending unintentionally suggests that Amelia didn’t need professional guidance from counsellors or a course of medication to set herself straight, she just needed to pull herself together with the help and love of her son. And I’m pretty sure any sufferers of her condition who tried that form of self-medication really would find themselves entering the grisliest of horror stories.
(Reviewed 19th August 2015)