For my first review, I really wanted to delve into a film that was more than just another movie I watched. I wanted to find a film that was destined to become a classic. The contenders are endless for this current decade, The Dark Knight, Pan’s Labyrinth, Spirited Away. But when I watched The Babadook, I knew instantly I had found my white rabbit. While it isn’t the film The Dark Knight was (but what is?), they still share one thing in common, great filmmaking. The Babadook stands alone, with its pure emotional storytelling, originality, and the rarest thing for a horror film these days, its sophistication.
The Babadook is Jennifer Kent’s first venture into filmmaking. William Friedkin, the man who made the Exorcist, even called this film “the most terrifying film he had ever seen”. I can’t say I firmly agree with his statement, while films like The Conjuring or Sinister have a much greater terror factor, but they can’t come close to touching the chiller aspect of The Babadook.
Jennifer Kent creates a sphere of terror around the mother and child, who are at the center of the story, and encloses on them as the film progresses. Whether the creature, Mister Babadook, is real or a metaphor, it finds a way to work in either scenario. The Babadook is a very intense movie, one which finds itself more in the thriller category with scenes of overwhelming horror mixed throughout. It offers more of a claustrophobic feel than the typical horror film. The enclosing circle creates a situation with absolutely no escape for the mother and son. The more the sphere encloses the further destruction they feel, both mentally and physically, as they battle the monster lurking in the shadows.
The emotional beats in this film are overemphasized by the mother and child, played expertly by Noah Wiseman, in his first ever film, and Essie Davis, an Australian actress who appeared in the Matrix trilogy. Together they carry the heavy lifting, and do a monumental job. Typical horror films are overacted, and we have seen so many instances where the acting is just unforgivable. This is not the case at all with The Babadook. Never once was I removed from the film, or found myself laughing at the actor’s poor attempt at their craft. This is pure solid acting in all its glory, and gives the film the realistic aspect it needs to complete the sphere of terror.
We have all seen movies where a family is trapped in a house, stalked by a paranormal presence, homicidal maniac, otherworldly creature, you name it, and we’ve all seen it a thousand times. Most usually have some sense of hope from the outside world, someone will eventually witness the horror, or be forced to believe, and therefore obligated to intervene. In The Babadook, there is no one or anything on the outside that can help you. The isolation is overwhelming. This is one aspect of the films freshness, shedding itself from the typical horror movie tropes. There is no paranormal medium coming to rid the house of its haunting, like The Conjuring. Or, a priest who comes in to save the family, warning them to get out before perishing in a horrible way, like the Amityville Horror. This film accomplishes so much, by doing so little, and avoiding the standard.
With that being said, in order to analyze the film correctly, it needs to be removed from comparison to the horror films of the past. It uses these films to shred itself from the norm, to become its own entity in the horror genre, separating itself from the pack. This is the point where, if you have not seen The Babadook yet, you should stop reading, watch the film in all its glory, and come back for more!
The Babadook begins, we open in a dream, a memory. This car crash, surrounded by darkness, is a clear event that is setting the tone for the film, a loving family loses their husband and father. The protection, the adhesive of the family is gone, leaving the family isolated and worst of all, vulnerable. But, like all films, is it a dream? Or is it the subconscious mind revealing its insanity? The crash, whether a reality or figment of the mother’s imagination, is the moment in her life that turns everything upside down. Right away we know, this event has shattered this family’s reality, and created a world that is enclosing around them.
Essie Davis is incredible at projecting a mother struggling, doing all she can do to raise her son, overly frustrated, anxious, unhappy. Her inner turmoil is shown through her emotions as if we were reading it descriptively out of a book. Except, without words, she is able to project a scale of emotions that allow us a glimpse inside of her true mind. Clearly, she is struggling, from right off the bat we may have the child from the Omen to raise as a son. For the first part of the movie, I was just thanking a higher being this child was not my own, because my goodness was this kid annoying. But, that is first-time actor Noah Wiseman outshining Haley Joel Osment for best child actor in a horror movie. I wish I would have counted the number of times he yelled out Mom! Mom! Mommy! Just like Stevie Griffin on Family Guy, but not funny.
The son, Samuel, goes from sweet and playful, to uncontainable and exasperating, to almost a trickster character. He plays it so perfectly, at times you become so frustrated with him, at times you want to hug him, and at times it makes you realize having kids is the worst idea of all-time. This is the sign of a great actor achieving the exact level of greatness he set out to achieve. With a look, or a read of the Babadook, he gives the audience the exact overwhelming emotions they need to connect. He goes from vicious to lovable in a single look, before he even encounters, Mister Babadook.
There is one element of the film I haven’t mentioned yet, and it is by far the star of the show. The book itself, Mister Babadook, is marvelous, by far the best usage of a book in any film, and in all honesty was the best character in the movie. It reveals Mister Babadook, a shadow figure with a top hat, with a great sense of poetic rhyme and the worst intentions behind it.
The monster was there before the Babadook was read aloud, so is the monster just taking a new manifestation based from the book? Did the Babadook create a form for the book? A question that never really is answered, but one that doesn’t necessarily need an answer. Is the boy insane from the start and pulling his mother deeper and deeper into his madness? Or is the mother whose madness is creating this? Is the book her mind, filling in pages as we go, the pages cracked and fading just like her mind. It even tries to sway her to fall into the madness, and to destroy the thing that makes her life so difficult, her son.
Throughout the movie, she desperately wants to love him, and tries with all her strength. But her grief holds her back. They are both heroes. The son just wants to protect his mom, as only a child knows how. Of course, by yelling as annoying as possible the same thing over and over. “Don’t let it in! Don’t let it in! Don’t let it In!” Unable to recognize his own feelings, he just knows he has to do all he can to warn his mom, to create weaponry to fight off the one thing that is tormenting their lives.
It is then, that Mister Babadook first appears, in one of the most frightening scenes that I’ve witnessed. It was chilling, I felt the fear. The voice of the Babadook is very Grudge-like, both of which are equally capable of scaring the living hell out of me and I must assume the audience at large. My only silly question, why isn’t the voice of the Babadook Australian?
Each time Mister Babadook appeared, it grew stronger. The sounds emitting from the monster go from a whisper, to a scratch, moan, scream, insect, large animal, to a Godzilla like monster in its final moments. It outgrows itself in a way, as she finally outgrows her own insanity, one might say. It grows and grows and she goes crazier and crazier until it gets so big it explodes and implodes the sphere of terror.
After she sees him, it’s becomes the breaking. She begins to hallucinate and fall apart, crossing a threshold in madness. Is she possessed, or just past the point of no return? The sleep deprivation only adds to the enclosing of the sphere of terror, but is it the actual cause of her seeing Mister Babadook? The intrigue of these concepts kept me studying the film as it progressed. Who is causing this to happen? The mothers fall into madness? The once playful boy who has fallen into madness since the appearance of the book? Or, did Mister Babadook choose them for another reason? Have you decided yet?
I’ve come to believe The Babadook is a metaphor for insanity, or even at times the manifestation of grief and suffering. The son is the hero, and he must find a way to save his mother from herself, her insanity. Grief is something that can never be removed completely, just as Mister Babadook can never be completely destroyed, only controlled. This is why the movie ends the way it does. It becomes part of you, and you can only live with it. In the end she goes down to feed it, and the son asks her, “How is it today?” She finds a way to live with her grief, and deal with the pain in our lives. The type of grief she has is something you can never get over, and therefore she is forced to push it deep down, into the basement, and feed it just enough to get by without it lashing out.
Samuel uses the love a son has for his mother, to be the one ideal that saves her life. The question becomes, do you think anything supernatural actually occurs in this film? Is Mister Babadook real? Or does this take place all in her mind? I feel there is no real answer, but it’s this fact that makes this film so interesting and well made.
In the end, the Babadook becomes the symbol of her insanity, as it locks itself away In the basement or the depths of her mind. She can keep it locked away there, but it will never go away. And when she ventures into the basement, to feed it worms, keeping it alive, does the film’s metaphor truly reveal itself. You can never get rid of the crazy, it’s a part of you and always be with you. Even locked away, that dark park of our mind always finds a way to be fed, to linger at our own controlled subconscious. Sanity feeds insanity, and it will always linger never to ever be fully rid of the pain and suffering.
My final thought about this film, wasn’t one about the film itself. It was the need to own a copy of Mister Babadook. It was the best thing about this movie, and that is not to take away from anything about the film. It’s beautiful and haunting, and if I saw it at a bookstore or online, I would buy it right away. They are leaving money on the table not mass producing this!
All in all, The Babadook is a classic in the making. The name alone is memorable, but after watching the movie the Babadook becomes unforgettable. I’ve watched this twice, and would welcome another viewing. This is a special horror movie, done incredible well, intriguing in its exposition, the story constantly moving forwarded as we fall into darkness. It is by far my favorite horror movie of the year, and maybe even in my top 10 films of the year overall.
I hope you enjoyed this review, on something dark and new. Because, “If it’s in a word or it’s In a look, you can’t get rid of the Ba…ba….dook dook dook!”
The Babadook – 9.3 out of 10