“If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”
Well, NOW I can’t. Thanks, movie.
Director and writer: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman
Released in: 2014 (in the U.S., anyway)
The Babadook is about Amelia, a single mother whose 6-year-old son, Samuel, is a bit of a problem child. He brings homemade weapons to school, freaks out other kids, and constantly has tantrums where he screams about monsters coming to get him. This does a number on his mother’s emotional state, which was already pretty bad because she’s still grieving for her husband, who was killed in a tragic accident several years ago. One night, Sam finds a new story on his shelf, called “Mister Babadook,” that his mum doesn’t remember buying for him. It turns out to be a creepy little pop-up book about a monster in a top hat that will do all sorts of vague and terrible things to you if you “let him in.” Naturally, it scares the crap out of Sam, and it eventually starts getting under Amelia’s skin, too, as she begins to imagine (or think she imagines) seeing and hearing the Babadook everywhere she goes. And things get worse from there.
There’s a line in A Grief Observed, which is C.S. Lewis’s story of how he lost his wife, that says, “No one ever told me grief felt so like fear.” And indeed, speaking as someone who’s felt relatively little of either, it seems that the two emotions do cause people to do very similar things. We avoid talking about things we’ve lost just as we avoid talking about things that scare us. Both grief and fear can lead to sleeplessness and poor decision making. And both can drive ordinarily decent people to do very indecent things.
That’s basically the premise behind this movie. Without getting too deep into spoiler territory, I think I can say that the monster is strongly tied to our main characters’ feelings of grief and resentment. So it seems oddly fitting that it’s also bed-wettingly terrifying. Hagrid was clearly involved in naming this thing, because only the guy who named a giant three-headed dog “Fluffy” could possibly have come up with a cutesy name like “Mister Babadook” for the face of all my nightmares. And keep in mind that this thing is rarely shown outside of the drawings in the book that introduced it. It doesn’t jump out at you from the shadows. It doesn’t rip people’s heads off or burst out of anyone’s chest. In fact, there’s very little blood or violence at all in the movie. All the scares come from places that are easy to relate to–weird noises in the house, a family member acting strange, lack of sleep, and, of course, the prospect of losing someone you love. And because of that, this is easily the scariest movie I’ve ever seen.
Not that I watch many scary movies. Most of the time, based on the trailers and posters I’ve seen, horror films just seem to be about uninteresting characters getting killed in interesting ways, and that has no appeal for me. Besides, even if the story’s good, there’s a limit to the amount of blood and tentacles I can take. But I heard this movie described as more of an allegorical character study than a monster movie, and that got me intrigued. Besides, I’ve been trying to watch more foreign films and more films directed by women, and this one checks both boxes. So I checked it out, and, even though it shaved an hour or two off my beauty sleep, I’m glad I did.
For one thing, it’s just a really, really well-made movie. The acting is top-notch. Amelia goes through quite a few emotional transformations throughout the story, and some of them could have come off pretty cheesy and terrible if Essie Davis hadn’t absolutely nailed them. But she did. The kid is also pretty great for a pint-sized actor, and although he can be annoying at times, it always feels intentional. The writing helps a lot, too. This is one movie where it pays to listen to the dialogue, because several seemingly innocent things are said early on that end up being tremendously important later. A lot is also said symbolically, or through subtext. This is not a movie that’s interested in spelling everything out for its audience. There were several times when I really had to use my brain to figure out what was going on–and there are a couple details I still don’t completely get. Then there’s the atmosphere. Even when nothing strange is happening onscreen, the way things are shot, the sounds we hear, and the music combine to give the movie a very surreal quality. It results in an incredibly suspenseful story that never stops building tension, from the first shot to the climax.
But none of that means anything if you don’t have a good story, and I think The Babadook does. It’s a very relatable and, dare I say, realistic take on something that many people have experienced, which is grief over the loss of a loved one. And although for the most part it’s as sad as it is scary, in the end it has something rather positive to say about that experience. It shows how destructive it can be to let one’s negative emotions take control, but it also shows that a little love and kindness can go a long way in healing the damage.
Things I had to look up:
This is an Australian movie, so I will admit that I did some googling to see if the Babadook was based on an actual Australian legend. Nope, the writer made it up. It is an anagram for “a bad book,” though, which…is fitting. Yeesh. Also, apparently shooting a fully functional crossbow on a playground doesn’t get you suspended from Australian school. It just gets the teachers to watch you more closely.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed The Babadook. It’s extremely scary, but it also made me think. I like movies that make me think. I also like movies that make me feel empathy for other people–in this case, particularly for those who have to deal with loss every day. A movie that can bring out those kinds of emotions is worth a few scares in my book.