2014 is well and truly over so I thought I would post my belated review of what emerged as the best original horror or the year; The Babadook. The Babadook is the story of a single mother Amelia, played by Essie Davis, who is struggling to come to terms with bringing up her troubled son Samuel alone after the tragic death of her husband in a car accident. Samuel is already rambunctious but after he finds a mysterious kids popup book called ‘The Babadook’ that gives him nightmares he becomes even more unruly leaving Amelia sleepless and vulnerable as the Babadook slowly starts to step off the page into the real world. The Babadook wants Amelia to kill her dog, her son and then kill herself.
The figure of the Babadook represents mental illness; Amelia isn’t coping with the loss of her husband. The husbands death coincided with the birth of her son, she and her son are isolated, with only each other for company the sons presence is a constant reminder of the husbands absence. The popup book states that ‘you can’t get rid of the Babadook’ just as you can’t fully get rid of mental illness you can only learn to cope with it. Amelia has to learn to compartmentalise her illness and not to let it run her life, her ‘real self’ has to want to be stronger than the Babadook in order to stop it from taking everything she cares about from her. Spoiler alert; this is why at the end of the film we see that she is keeping the Babadook in the basement and bringing it food everyday; because you can’t get rid of the Babadook, only keep it under control.
The Babadook is a scary film (some have called it the scariest of the year) because in many ways it is a realistic portrayal of how child abuse happens. A vulnerable person develops mental illness and the wider society is unwilling to help. Institutions (the police and child services in this film) are disapproving and seek to place blame, relatives take the ‘pull yourself together’ approach and stay distant. The only person in the film who shows understanding towards Amelia is her elderly neighbor Mrs Roach who has her own struggle with Parkinson’s to contend with.
One of the reasons this is able to happen is because modern Western capitalist society is geared towards making money with the ability to be a consumer seen as a key to social status. Someone like Amelia who finds it hard to make it to work because of her personal struggles is therefore simply seen as a broken link in a chain to be discarded. This is lightly touched on in the scene where Amelia and Samuel visit her sister for her sister’s daughters Birthday party. The scene opens with the young girl complaining that she has been gifted the same doll twice, her mother’s response is that now the doll has a twin that she can go shopping with. All the other mums are immaculately made up and spend their time talking about their husbands business acquisitions. When Amelia suggests that the women’s perceived problem, such as not having enough time to go to the gym, are not very important in the grand scheme of things she is immediately ostracised by the group. The resulting social embarrassment persuades Amelia’s sister to stop seeing Amelia and Samuel for the foreseeable future leaving the pair even more isolated and at greater risk from ‘the Babadook.’
In the scenes when the Babadook appears it takes on the physical form of the dead husbands suit of clothes that Amelia has kept hanging up in the basement. Occasionally in dream sequences and during delirium the Babadook visits Amelia with her husbands face, and speaks to her as if through her husband suggesting that they can be together again after she gives him her son. This choice of imagery for the Babadook emphasizes that Amelia’s psychological state is deeply tied to the loss of her husband.
Samuel must take on additional responsibility in the absence of the ‘normal’ mother, and he must fight to rid his mother of the Babadook’s influence. Samuel sees his mother as infected or possessed by the Babadook. Where as the mother sees the father’s personal traits and possessions as painful things to be forgotten or hidden Samuel uses these as strengths to use to stop the Babadook. Samuel’s fascination with magic and magicians is the most notable example of this; he uses magic tricks and traps to escape when his mother is infected by the creature.
The Babadook is a well made film; the constant visual references to magic tricks, use of silent film clips and affecting sound design when the creature is around is impressive. Directer Jennifer Kent shows a good understanding of the mother child relationship and manages to represent a psychological horror that is consistently intense without becoming melodramatic. One of the things that usually puts me off of watching psychological horrors is the tendency for the woman, who is usually at the center of events, to be portrayed as psychologically or supernaturally vulnerable due to ‘weak mindedness.’ This is not the case with Babadook; Amelia may indeed be suffering from mental health issues, but she is always portrayed in a fair and even handed manner. I look forward to seeing more from Kent in the future.