Active Ingredients: Horror as emotional fear; Essie Davis; No cheats
Side Effects: Relative lack of visual innovation
The Babadook is the rare modern horror film that doesn’t cheat. There are no jump scares, no blasts of loud music, no ‘boo!’ moments of any kind. That’s not to say that The Babadook isn’t scary, just that its spooky suspense comes not from smoke and mirrors, but psychological fear made external and tangible. More impressive still, the type of fear The Babadook explores and exposes isn’t rooted in any well-wore horror cliche. It’s vision of terror doesn’t come from a creepy doll or possessed rocking chair, but from the real-life fears of motherhood.
The film follows depressed and exhausted single mom Amelia as she struggles to care for her precocious handful of a 7-year-old son, Samuel. Samuel’s father died in a car crash the same day the boy was born, and the two events are inextricably linked in Amelia’s mind. She loves Samuel, but his very presence represents all that she’s lost, the sadness that’s enshrouded her life, and the hopelessness of trying to cope on her own.
Written and directed by first-time (and extremely talented) filmmaker Jennifer Kent, The Babadook develops a surprisingly honest and nuanced understanding of motherhood, an experience infinitely more complex and shaded than other depictions we’re used to seeing on film. Motherhood can be a joy—and I think we see that love in Amelia, despite her obvious struggles—but it is also the ultimate burden and the paragon of selflessness. Amelia has given up much of her identity as an individual to care for Samuel, and while she’s reluctant to complain about her duty, it’s beginning to take its toll on her in frightening ways.
The central metaphor of The Babadook is to literalize Amelia’s fears as a parent, the swirling, threatening darkness just beneath the surface, in the guise of an evil, black figure. The Babadook is a character described in a suspicious children’s book—one Amelia didn’t know she had—a shape in a long black coat and black top hat. He knocks on the door, but once you let him in, he never leaves. The book traumatizes poor Samuel, an imaginative little boy already susceptible to ghost stories, but it slowly begins to seep into Amelia’s life too. Exhaustion, doubt and terror combine as Amelia begins seeing the Babadook everywhere, creeping into dark corners of rooms, emerging from closets or taking shape from an outfit on a hanger.
Part of The Babadook‘s success comes from Kent’s delicate handling of the emotional modulations of Amelia’s psychological state as a single mother. She delivers exposition swiftly and creatively, and believably builds on the mother-son relationship at each turn. The other key to the film’s effectiveness, however, is actress Essie Davis. Playing the beleaguered mother, Davis’s emotional fragility gives way to intense physicality over the course of the film. It’s an extremely risky and difficult performance, one that might have registered as camp in the hands of a less talented actress, but Davis is convincing, scary and heartbreaking all at once.
**MILD SPOILERS AHEAD**
From the combined efforts of Kent and Davis, The Babadook becomes a rare horror film in another way. Not only does it refuse to cheat, either visually or emotionally, but it also manages to create a character and a story that deserve our empathy and concern. We root for Amelia and Samuel, not only to avoid being brutally killed, but to learn to grow together as a family. By the end of the film, it becomes clear that the Babadook doesn’t just represent Amelia’s own darkness, but the hole left in her left by her late husband. That’s why the menacing image of an empty set of clothes is the perfect representation of the spook; it’s not the presence of a monster, but the absence of a father. Together, Amelia and Samuel keep the darkness at bay, but it will never be completely vanquished; Amelia will never be free of her burden as a mother, but together she and Samuel can help each other make it.