Considering its very limited Australian release in May of last year, you could easily be forgiven for having never heard of The Babadook. A feature-length expansion on the premise of her 2005 short film Monster, Australian actress and filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s haunting triumph follows a young boy and his single mother as they are tormented by a curious and malevolent creature. At this point, I’d like to issue a spoiler alert, as some of the things I want to discuss in this review might be better left unexposed for those who haven’t already seen the film. What I mean to say is, ‘turn back now, before it’s too late, you bastard/s. Go and watch the movie. Then, and only then, may you return.’
You could comfortably call The Babadook a horror film, but it was never actually Jennifer Kent’s intention to scare anybody. Considering its content I think it—the people-scaring—was inevitable, but she has mentioned in a few interviews that she didn’t ever plot any overt or unnecessary moments of terror. As this is the very aspect most critics enjoy slamming an overwhelming proportion of horror flicks for, Kent’s approach was a very good sign at the outset. Indeed, her avoidance of tired genre clichés is masterful; she opts instead to build a festering tone of creepiness over time. The colour palette is cool, blue and unsettlingly understated, evoking the glum tinges of other noteworthy Australian films like Snowtown. The sets are ever-so-subtly stylised: blue couch, blue pillows, blue doors, old television, half-grimy wallpaper. The film is beautifully shot, but Kent’s choices here rob the shots at home of any homeliness at all, leaving us with a dusty, claustrophobic shell for the primary action to take place in. Eek. Having said that, the elements of the sets are so carefully arranged that the interior shots play a mind game with the viewer. This drives an undertone of unease while appearing close enough to normality that no alarm bells are set off.
"Here, Jennifer Kent is asking us a weighty question: do we need to face our demons, sometimes in an ongoing capacity, to overcome them?"
Noah Wiseman, in the role of Amelia’s troubled son Samuel, is great. A cameo from Daniel Henshall as kind-and-good-humoured-work-colleague Robbie sent my mind racing back to Snowtown for the second time; he’s good as usual, and Barbara West does an excellent job of injecting life into gentle granny Mrs Roach. Hayley McElhinney effortlessly dons a pantsuit and plays Claire, Amelia’s fed-up friend, excruciatingly well, but it is Essie Davis, our leading woman, who steals the show. Her performance is multidimensional to the point of evoking a comprehensive array of emotions, and her transformation from meek, overworked, grief-stricken widow to venomous monster is captivating. Amelia’s descent into malignant possession is so agonising to watch because it feels so natural, as though we’re seeing every hint of blame and anger she’s ever held about her dead husband Oscar’s death slowly come to boil. Here, Essie Davis does great justice to Jennifer Kent’s overarching theme of the insidious nature of repressed grief, for which the Babadook is—POW!—a metaphor.
So, let’s get to the baddie. The Babadook is, in my opinion, one of the more unique villains I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. The morbidly wacky children’s book from which it springs forth, an excellent set piece created by American illustrator Alexander Juhasz, sets a menacing tone for our spindly-fingered antagonist at the outset. Kent’s representation of its arrival is no less engrossing: she opts to use physical techniques, like puppetry and stop-motion animation, instead of CGI, which propels the film’s homage to the old-school and makes for a memorable sequence. As mentioned before, the Babadook is a corporeal metaphor for repressed grief, something Kent cleverly hints at when Amelia sees it standing behind her neighbour looking awfully humanoid, albeit a bit pale. Here, Kent is drawing a direct, physical correlation between the Babadook and Amelia’s deceased husband, Oscar, whose death spawned her poisonous sorrow. The arrival of the Babadook signifies that Amelia has come to a crossroads after seven years of subdued mourning: she can either accept Oscar’s death and overcome it, or allow her grief to engulf her and drive her insane. Considering that the latter option would have resulted in the bloody death of Samuel, not to mention another couple of local pooches, I’m glad Amelia found the wherewithal to confront her demon and shout (very cinematically!) at it.
After the Babadook is banished to the basement, a shot of a previously-skeletal tree blossoming announces that order has been restored. However, there are still no warmer tones to be found anywhere, suggesting a bittersweet victory. Yes, Amelia has successfully faced her grief, but it will never truly leave her. The locks on the cellar door symbolise that her management of the Babadook will be an ongoing, conscious struggle. I like this; again, I think Kent is gracefully dodging clichés at a pivotal moment and approaching the climax of the film in a realistic way. She’s not done with the metaphors, either. Let’s now unpack the image of Amelia feeding the Babadook a bowl of worms Samuel has picked out of the garden for her. The bowl of worms is an interesting play on the concept of ‘feeding grief’; Samuel, ever her inspiration to keep the evil of the Babadook at bay, is providing Amelia with the strength and resolve—worms—to avoid repeating her past mistake of ignoring her sorrow. Instead, she knows that she must ‘nourish’ it. Here, Jennifer Kent is asking us a weighty question: do we need to face our demons, sometimes in an ongoing capacity, to overcome them? If so, does this not entail feeding them, to some extent?
This is one of those films that only comes along once in a blue moon, and frankly, I’m disgusted that I’ve just used a cliché to announce that opinion seeing as The Babadook avoids them so deftly. It’s a rich commentary on love, alienation, grief, death, coping, motherhood, and an effective horror film that tips its crinkled top hat to the old-school while feeling thoroughly contemporary. The cinematography is eerily beautiful, the acting is superb, and every aspect of the film’s aesthetic and set design seems thoughtfully considered. Some might call the ending disappointing, and they might have a point, but The Babadook is such a masterful example of filmmaking that it’s difficult to criticise.