After comparing it to the likes of Alien and Psycho, William Friedkin called The Babadook the most terrifying film he’d ever seen. Yes, the director of The Exorcist, one of the most infamous horror films of the 20th century, said that Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent’s debut feature length film “scared the hell out of” him. I’m not sure much more endorsement is needed. For what it’s worth, I can corroborate Mr. Friedkin – The Babadook had me the most afraid I’ve been since I watched The Blair Witch Project…when I was 9. Even more refreshing than The Babadook’s ability to induce such dread is its story – odd, specific, unique, and most importantly, rife with symbolism and psychological significance.
The Babadook revolves around suburban widow Amelia and her troublesome adolescent son, Samuel. Plagued by a fear of monsters, Samuel spends many nights in his mother’s bed and much of his days ingeniously engineering weapons and traps to fend them off. When we learn early on that Samuel’s father was killed in an accident while racing to the hospital with Amelia deep in labor, her and Samuel’s relationship takes on fascinating Oedipal traits. Due to the timing of the tragedy, he very much literally and immediately replaced his father. The shots of them in bed together, him asleep, pressing himself into her, grinding his teeth, his insistence on his role as Amelia’s “protector,” it all takes on a deeper psychological meaning as the film unfolds. That’s the beauty of The Babadook – it’s not just a series of jump-scares. There’s palpable depth and purpose here.
One night when choosing his bedtime story, Samuel pulls a pop-up book from the shelf called Mister Babadook. It’s important to note here that the book wasn’t exactly discovered or at all delivered – it was always there. When Amelia questions Samuel as to where it came from, he bluntly states, “the shelf.” The book depicts the Babadook, a figure in a trench coat and top hat that knocks three times (“baba-dook-dook-dook”) before entering your room at night. Understandably disturbed by what she sees, Amelia hides it, even (futilely) tries to destroy it, but it’s of no use – Samuel is already obsessed with the Babadook, claiming to see it everywhere. As his behavioral problems grow more severe, Amelia begins to unwind, and at her wit’s end, she, too, begins to see the Babadook.
The film is as relentless as its monster. Its colors are washed out and yield a lifeless suburbia that could apply nearly anywhere. Its moments of ease are few and far between – if I had to boil The Babadook down to one phrase it would be “90 minutes of pure dread.” The sound department deserves special recognition here as many of the film’s most paralyzing moments are rooted in sound – the knocks on the door, the voice on the phone, the tense score that never lets up. The creature itself is grotesquely unnerving with its long, black fingers, and is made all the more disturbing by the notion that this is merely the entity’s disguise. According to the book, once you see what’s underneath, you’ll “wish you were dead.” Having studied under Lars von Trier on the set of his challengingly minimalistic Dogville, Kent knows how to make a visually fascinating film. She often delves into surrealism, such as during appearances of the Babadook, its several harrowing dream sequences, and the hallucinogenic images Amelia sees on her TV screen as her insomnia worsens.
Kent derived the word “Babadook” from the Serbain term for “boogeyman,” “Babaroga.” What the Babadook actually is does become clear – it is a manifestation of Amelia’s grief. It is her inability to face and accept the tragedy that has befallen her, and it is the oppressive pall of depression and resentment that she has raised Samuel under (of which his fear of monsters is symptomatic). Amelia’s fight against the Babadook is a postpartum struggle to assert herself as a mother. In an interview with Movies.com, Kent outlined her intentions:
I was pretty sure I was going to get a lot of criticism for this portrayal of a woman who is far from perfect. But what I’ve experienced is the opposite. A lot of women are kind of breathing a sigh of relief that there’s a real and complex woman up on-screen. And she’s struggling and that it’s showing that motherhood is not the dream that society wants to pretend it is. It throws up questions like is maternal love inherent in women? Is it always there? And how much do we lose from being parents, male or female, but obviously more for women.
The Babadook isn’t just scary. That’s not why it’s special, and certainly not why someone like William Friedkin would endorse it (he went so far as to host an early screening in LA). The Babadook is special because, like all truly great, timeless horror films, it’s about something. It’s scaring you on a deeply psychological level and for a reason. It’s not just playing on our fear of a being encroaching upon us in the safety of our own beds (which I personally find immensely unsettling), it’s exploring our capacity for tragedy. The details of Amelia’s experience are shown in a revelatory flashback, and what she witnessed and endured is staggeringly disturbing. What would that do to a person? To a mother? To us? With The Babadook, Jennifer Kent has created a modern horror masterpiece of both mood and story. She respectably bought any and all rights to the property, and will never allow a sequel or remake, telling IGN that “it’s just not that kind of film. I don’t care how much I’m offered, it’s just not going to happen.” Such resolve deserves respect, and if she’s as prolific as she told TheFilmExperience.com she hopes to be, and any of her films are even half as good as The Babadook, we’re in for a treat.