The Babadook, the first feature film from Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent, is terrifying almost to the point of nausea. In terms of execution, Kent opts for steady, dependable tricks of the trade. The Babadook is a slow burn that doesn’t reveal its monster until it needs to. When it does appear, it’s as a stop motion effect, a blur in the corner of your eye or a black charcoal drawing on a page. At a brisk 94 minutes, Kent’s debut doesn’t fuck around with the kind of meandering B-plots that weigh down most modern horror movies; it’s a very precise machine designed to rattle and unsettle.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a trying and failing to raise her young son Sam (Noah Wiseman) in the years following her husband’s death. Sam’s disruptive and increasingly bizarre behavior threatens her job, her relationships, even her sanity. And this is all before Amelia and Sam find a strange, violent children’s book in their home. The greyscale pages of Mister Babadook depict a weird shadow creature with a coat, top hat, and claws who demands to be “let in.” And the last few pages are blank.
Davis’ performance here is knock-you-on-your-ass remarkable. The portrait of a parent desperately trying to hold it together, she carries herself with a harried, frazzled dignity. There’s never any question of authenticity in Amelia and Sam’s scenes together, you completely believe you’re watching mother and son on the screen and there’s a palpable dread as we watch car rides and public outings together escalate into screaming matches.
Kent’s script pointedly emphasizes how Amelia’s status as a single mother informs how she is treated by those around her. Amelia’s sister, seemingly her only family, associates with her and Sam purely out of obligation, while authority figures like school officials and child services representatives condescend to her. Amelia wants her son to act normal and behave, but she also has needs of her own. She desires the possibility of love and companionship offered by a handsome and friendly orderly at the elder care center where she works. Lonely, Amelia longs for sexual release that is denied to her by society and by herself. At one point this becomes literal, in a scene where her use of a vibrator is interrupted by a panicked and crying Sam running into her room.
But more than anything, she just wants to sleep. Much of The Babadook revolves around sleep or, rather, Amelia’s failed attempts to sleep and the toll it takes on her. In the face of all this, Amelia grows despondent and angry at her child. And that’s before we meet The Babadook.
Watching the film, we’re confronted by The Babadook boogeyman. Rather, we’re confronted by trying to make sense of it. Is it a psychological manifestation of Amelia’s resentment towards Sam that only she can see? After all, only Amelia and her unusually imaginative (and severely medicated) son witness any of this. Is it the spectre of her deceased husband? There’s certainly reason to believe it, given the creature’s ability to take on his form and Amelia’s refusal to talk about her husband to others. Where did it come from, and why does it want “the boy?” The Babadook is shapeless, formless; in some scenes it’s the shadow of a man, in others it crawls across the ceiling like lizard or appears to be impossibly huge in size.
Whether The Babadook is a genuine supernatural manifestation or shared hallucination ultimately doesn’t matter. Kent’s creature is anything and everything bad in Amelia’s mind. It’s the dark voice in her head telling her to kill her child, to kill herself and be reunited with her husband. The Babadook is despair incarnate. The buried fear, deep down in our heart of hearts that we will hurt the ones we love. The part of us that wants to.
Amelia’s sanity is strained by the monster’s day and night torments until, as plainly laid out in the film’s eerily indestructible storybook, the creature takes over her body and The Babadook switches gears. Watching Davis as the possessed Amelia strangling the family dog, or brandishing a carving knife and screaming obscenities at her six year old son, is more blood-curdling than any special effects monster because it’s real. As she chases Sam through the house, Kent opts for subtle flourishes (Amelia moves a little too quickly, her voice dipping into a low register here and there) where lesser directors might have gone for full-on Creepshow gore effects.
Kent opts for an uneasy ending but one that is not only suitable, but necessary. The Babadook expelled from her body and defeated, Amelia comes to a sort of understanding with the creature and it takes up residence in the basement of the family home. If The Babadook is a slithering, bellowing stand-in for mental illness, then it can’t and shouldn’t be destroyed through an act of will or a sword through the heart. Amelia accepts the creature and, in doing so, she and Sam are able to become a functioning family again.
As with any good horror film, The Babadook succeeds because it knows which of our buttons it needs to push, our fear of monsters just outside the crack of our bedroom door or lurking inside of ourselves.
The Babadook is now playing in select theaters nationwide.