Recently I watched The Babadook, an Australian psychological horror film released in 2014 and directed by Jennifer Kent. The film follows Amelia Vannick, a single mother who works as an orderly and is struggling to raise her six year old son Samuel. Her husband died in a car accident on the day Sam was born, an event that continues to haunt their small household.
Sam is somewhat of a problem child, considered “weird” by his peers at school, and he appears obsessed with the villains of storybooks, concerned that they are real foes he will have to protect his mother from. Soon they are plagued by the presence of the titular Babadook, a supernatural entity that starts worming its way into their lives after they read a pop-up book about it that Sam found on their bookshelf.
Right off the bat, I think Essie Davies (Amelia) and Noah Wiseman (Sam) did a great job in their respective roles. The film takes its time at first by establishing their relationship, which is one of genuine love, but a palpable amount of anxiety and stress. It is clear that Amelia wants what is best for her son, but the weight of her grief over the loss of her husband — which she hasn’t gotten over — and Sam’s hyperactive behaviour and imagination take a substantial toll on her.
I want to give particular credit to Noah Wiseman’s performance, who played one of the most convincing child characters I’ve seen in a movie. While many other children, especially in horror movies, are annoying, generic, and/or monotonous to be creepy, Wiseman was utterly convincing in his role throughout. When Sam was upset and freaking out, I believed it and felt Amelia’s mounting stress with every second passing. Once his position became more sympathetic, however, as he became progressively victimized, my sympathy became almost overwhelming. This significant of a change in feeling towards a character is not something I’ve commonly experienced, which made me appreciate it all the more.
The creature design and atmosphere of the film are also very well done. The family home has a very aged and dreary look to it that makes it a very appropriate setting, and the Babadook is effectively creepy on screen — especially in the storybook it first appears in. The drawings represented look nightmarish in their kid’s-book art style, and the creature itself looks like it stepped out of a horror film from the silent movie era — and I mean that in the best possible way.
While the basic premise of the film — family becomes terrorized by supernatural entity — is very commonplace in the horror genre, The Babadook is a great example of how to do a story like this right. It’s not just a well told story either, but also legitimately frightening. While there are many contributing factors, one in particular to me is this: it’s not really about the monster.
Many horror movies lately have a scene where the main character researches what they’re dealing with, or talks with an eccentric expert. While this trope has its place, I’ve always had a problem with it because it can often drain the story of a lot of its mystery, when that is what makes the paranormal so unnerving: they defy explanation. Furthermore, it puts the spotlight on the monster, when they are more effectively used as a tool to perpetuate the horror, rather than the complete source of it.
I’ve always found that some of the best stories have layers: what they’re about, and what they’re really about. Both are valid and in the best cases complement each other. The Babadook is about a supernatural entity invading a home, but it’s really about a mother and son dealing with intense grief, stress, and anxiety. Horror done at its best targets real human fears, such as home invasion, corruption of domestic spaces, and being a single parent. The creature is a tool to effectively attack these fears, bringing them more prominently to life.
If you’re a fan of horror films, I cannot recommend The Babadook enough. It’s got a hauntingly unique monster, great characters, and a plot that envelopes the audience in its conflict. If horror is not your thing, I would still highly recommend it as a well told story that doesn’t rely on cheap jump-scares to frighten its audience.