October Horrorshow: The Babadook

There was a thread on r/horror back in December of last year. In it, OP was lamenting the fact that having seen so many horror films in their lifetime, they were having a hard time being frightened by horror films anymore. They, and other commenters, wished they could go back in time to younger days when the horror genre still held surprises, when they could still be scared by an apparition suddenly appearing in a bathroom mirror, or a slasher coming back from the dead to chase down and slaughter teenagers. Everyone seemed a little jaded. Here were people whose favorite genre of film is horror, and they felt that they had become desensitized to what drew them to the genre in the first place. What a shame.

I’m a bit of a victim myself. Slashers, zombies, vampires, aliens, and other monsters of their ilk haven’t scared me in a long time. There’s a sameness about these subgenres of horror that means there aren’t that many surprises left for someone who has seen a lot of horror. I never thought about how no longer being scared was affecting my viewing experience until I saw that thread. But I realized, I’m not bothered at all. I still find zombie flicks pretty cool, and I love a good Alien clone. A horror film can still be very entertaining even when it no longer scares you. If that were not the case, then there would be no point in watching any horror film more than once. Yet, I keep going back to my favorites.

So, some horror subgenres don’t scare me, and films that used to scare me no longer do. But there is one subgenre that still scares the bejesus out of me, and that’s the ghost subgenre. I’ve written about this before in past Horrorshows, but ghost flicks have the power to frighten me like no other horror film. There are no such things as vampires and werewolves. The idea of a zombie walking the earth is ridiculous. But, there isn’t a single one of us who hasn’t been alone at night and heard…something. A creak in a floorboard, a soft knock behind a wall, a scrape along a window or a groan that seems to come out of the walls. We know what makes these sounds. Houses and apartment buildings make all sorts of crazy sounds, especially in places with great variance in temperature. But even the most rational of us can feel that twinge of fear, and this is happening to us in real life, not in some movie. So, for me, ghost flicks are the closest horror film to my real life experiences, and that is why I find them scary.

Today’s film is The Babadook. I hope that anyone in that thread I wrote about above saw this movie and had their pants scared off. I did. This was one of those horror films where I spent a fair amount of time not watching it. That is, instead of looking directly at the screen during a really intense scene, I was watching it on the reflection of my desktop, or through a couple fingers. Maybe I slid my glasses down my nose so the screen would be hopelessly blurred. This movie scared me enough that I averted my gaze to lessen the blow. That’s good stuff, man. That is what I want out of a horror flick. And it’s a good movie, to boot!

The Babadook is a low-budget flick written and directed by Jennifer Kent. It follows Amelia and Samuel (Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman), a mother and young son in Adelaide, Australia. Amelia is a widow and single mom, stretched thin raising her boy. Things only get worse when Samuel’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic. Samuel’s antics at home have robbed Amelia of her nightly sleep, and it is ruining her life. On top of all this, Samuel seems to have become obsessed with a disturbing children’s book that appeared on his shelf. It tells, in grim nursery rhyme style, of a creature known as the Babadook that comes and terrorizes families at night. Samuel is convinced that the Babadook is real.

In the first act of the film, it’s left to the audience to figure out if the Babadook is indeed real, or if Samuel is off his rocker. This is a very important part of the film, because Kent’s film is as much about how a single mother is coping as it is about a demonic haunting. Wiseman’s Samuel is an embarrassingly misbehaved child. He’s one of those kids that make bystanders feel sorry for the mother. He is ruining her life more effectively than any ghost ever could. The scary stuff is important to this film, but the dread that Amelia feels as she’s raising her son is just as palpable.

Wiseman is the exact opposite of what one can expect from a child in a ghost film. There’s just as much innocence in him as in Poltergeist’s Carol Anne or The Sixth Sense’s Cole Sear, but that innocence manifests itself as obliviousness to how miserable he is making Amelia. It’s a hell of a performance.

As for Amelia, Essie Davis did a wonderful job portraying an exhausted mother. She looks downtrodden and beaten. But, like so many people in real life, she soldiers on. This is the life she has, one of constant struggle, and she doesn’t give up, because she can’t. It’s one of the best performances I’ve seen out of anyone all year.

The mother/child dynamic has dominated ghost films in recent memory. Poltergeist, Insidious, The Orphanage…the list goes on and on. There’s not a lot left to tell. But Kent managed to make something unique. Amelia isn’t battling an unbelieving husband or officials alongside her battle with the supernatural. There aren’t any experts from some university that show up with cameras and psychics. There aren’t any lectures about the other side or the light. There’s just a small family that is falling apart and one woman who has been pushed to the edge.

The world in which Kent placed these two is bleak. The sets are awash in cool greys and blacks, removing all charm from the house in which the pair live. As I watched, the sets threatened to impact my suspension of disbelief, though. No one lives in a house surrounded by that much grey. I refuse to believe anyone would find that acceptable. The sets, then, feel like sets, instead of a real house. That’s all well and good for a stage play or a film whose feel is fantastical. But this film is very grounded in reality and using the sets in the fashion that they do is a little ham-handed. There are other ways to use sets to establish a creepy mood. Finding a way to do so without making it so obvious would have served the film better.

The good news is, that’s it. The sets are the only flaw I can find for this film and that’s stretching things. I’m sure many viewers will be just fine with all the grey and it will work as Kent and company intended. I also feel as if any other criticism is just picking nits. The Babadook is a very good film.