By Mike Shaeffer
The Babadook, Australia / Canada, 2014
Written and Directed by Jennifer Kent
― Emilie Buchwald
When marketing an independent film, producers want a trailer that will reel in any number of demographics. Their targeted audience may be those who love a good thriller, but the product is cross-marketed as a horror film or a psychological drama. Such is the case with the Australian outing The Babadook, released in the U.S. last November. While this film owes a bit to the horror genre, it works most effectively as an emotional thriller. Not only does it fit best within the thriller genre, it is most chilling when the ambiguities are cemented in the notion that this is not a supernatural haunting akin to The Amityville Horror; this is not some spin on the Necronomicon— the cursed book of flesh from Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead franchise. The Babadook is not a modern take on The Bad Seed, nor does this film involve cursed ground filled with angry spirits a la Poltergeist. The Babadook is a thriller that depicts the downward spiral of an increasingly unhinged single parent. The mother desperately loves her child, but she is overwhelmed, inept, and unable to combat the depression, fear, and anxiety she suffers after losing her husband and having to raise her boy alone.
The opening scene depicts a violent car crash, claiming the life of the expectant father, speeding towards the hospital with pregnant wife in tow. The wife survives the crash, but she is forever shaken by the incident. Fast-forward to present day, where she is struggling to raise this child, now six. Quickly we see (through a series of disturbing close ups) that “normally adjusted” is not a phrase anyone would use for her son. He is expressive and wide-eyed about the world, but he is obnoxious, combative, friendless, and prone to violent outbursts, plagued by the notion of real-life monsters. He never knew his father, and we sense that tragic void in the boy’s life.
Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock loved the significance of objects in his thrillers. He would appreciate the opening shots of six-year-old Samuel, tiny hands manipulating an oft-used mallet, a toothy metal handsaw, and a splintered, makeshift crossbow. We discover that these objects are being used by the boy to mount a defense; there is a force that threatens him and his mother. All of these objects play second fiddle to (and are rendered all but ineffective by) a dreadful blood-red book that mysteriously pops up among the boy’s bedtime books one dark and stormy evening.
Early in the story, it’s understandable that an audience would like to see this film fit in with the likes of Village of the Damned, Rosemary’s Baby, or The Omen, but we are given so much more. Something truly unpredictable happens halfway through the movie. We realize that the seemingly possessed boy has every justification to fear for his safety and the safety of his mom. The force that haunts him isn’t the dead spirit of his father, a hungry demon, or a nameless Lovecraftian entity– it’s the growing darkness within his mother that becomes more present with each restless and increasingly claustrophobic night.
Fans of paranormal activity will have to go searching elsewhere. The film’s menace is nothing demonic or alien; it’s something all-too-frighteningly familiar– child abuse. How can parents who truly love their children consider lashing out physically against them? The Babadook is that dark and violent streak– that illness– that lurks within some parents. What makes this movie so riveting is that the central child figure can see it coming. He senses his mother’s fragility, exhaustion, and desperation all culminating into a dark, destructive force, and he takes what action he can against it. Imagine if the troubled child characters from The Secret Life of Bees, The Others, or even Mommie Dearest could be empowered with a sort of “Spidey Sense” or “Shining 2.0” each time their abusive parent was about to descend into madness (in one form or another). How different would those movies be and what better lives might those children have led? If Lieutenant Ripley’s alien baby knew that Sigourney Weaver really meant malice behind her initial caress, might we have enjoyed a better battle royale for the end of Alien: Resurrection?
Few things are more helpless than a child. Thrillers center around the helpless protagonist, hanging over the (mental) abyss. Even though Samuel has taken it upon himself to make his own weaponry, he is still just a six-year-old, and when the mother in The Babadook finds herself staring down that dark, expansive hallway, filled with beastly voices, beckoning for bad deeds, does she give up, overwhelmed by her own sinister thoughts? Can we empathize with her aloneness and her struggle to fight against these (inner) demons? The unease is palpable and we fear for the kid.
Thrillers are structured around a partial vision. For the first half of The Babadook, we are just as frustrated as the central characters. We don’t know what kind of ride we’re on. Are we expecting an exorcism? Are the sinister paper pop-outs in the seemingly indestructible book a dreadful foreshadowing of the characters’ fates? Will the Babadook (knocking and whispering from the shadows) manifest itself into some CGI ghoul that would make H.R. Giger roll over in his grave? This deliberate rope-a-dope from first-time writer-director Jennifer Kent is solidly unnerving, edgy, and entertaining. She offers up a thriller that deserves– if not demands– a repeated viewing.
Regarding the iconography of the thriller, this movie has shadows in spades. One of the reasons this movie is so memorable, striking, and effective as a modern thriller is that, during the few scenes shot out of doors and in the daylight, the viewer is still haunted by the effective lighting (or lack thereof) from the interior shots. We sense that more dread, more shadow, and more thrills are just a heartbeat away.
As the mother attempts to navigate her own endless and confusing maze (didn’t she just barbecue that book?), we are left to wonder if she ever figures out that the enemy is within. Even if she were to examine inward, this discovery would horrify her and make her totally collapse mentally, abandoning her already loose grip on reality, rather than it being an empowering moment, compelling her to seek professional help and a safe haven for her well-meaning son.
In so many classic thrillers, the protagonist and antagonist share some sort of characteristic or flaw. Martin Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear features a defense attorney (Sam Bowden) and an ex-con (Max Cady), two men who both are well read in the letter of the law yet act outside it; both have had indiscretions with women. Likewise, the Babadook becomes the evil, harmful thoughts coming to a boil in the mother’s mind, the flip side of the loving, nurturing mother we want her to be.
As the film builds towards the climax, there is an even greater loss of control, a storyline focused on the hapless heroine, and an ever-heightening sense of peril– all steadfast elements of the thriller genre. Ultimately, however, there is no boogeyman beneath your bed; it’s the person tucking you in. She loves you– most of the time– but she also has the power and desire to harm you. While some fans will want to enjoy the supernatural or demonic possibilities left open-ended by the film’s ambiguity, one need look no further than the movie’s tagline: “You can’t get rid of the Babadook.” This thriller is most unsettling when the viewer strips away and dismisses the possibilities of an external antagonist. The Babadook is the mother’s abuse and mental instability, an instability that will continue to spiral downward after the credits roll. The ending even suggests that the harder she tries to fight these violent, destructive urges, the more doomed she is to fail.
Mike Shaeffer is a slam poet, playwright, director, and English teacher who lives in Fairbanks, AK.