BABADOOK, BABADOOK, BABADOOK. Man, that’s all anybody talks about ever since this movie played the A, B or C Film Festival last year. At first I just ignored it, ’cause I thought it was some Howard Stern thing. But when I found out it was an Australian horror movie I knew that aligned with my interests.
It’s immediately captivating. It has a stylish look, kinetic editing and interesting faces on its two primary characters, the lonely widow Amelia (Essie Davis, who of course played Maggie in both MATRIX sequels [okay honestly I don’t remember who that character is]) and her weird little son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who’s about 7 years-old but is introduced testing powerful catapults and dart guns and talking about bashing a monster’s head in with a rock.
There’s some Sam Raimi-esque flourishes here and there, and it’s easy to picture a cutesy horror comedy where the kid goes Ash, saves Mom from a monster with home-made weapons and traps, furrows his brow and says some one-liner, charming the socks off the midnight film festival crowds and twentysomething writers for movie websights. And I would’ve been okay with that if it was done well, but I like that writer/director Jennifer Kent (you know, “Lab Lady” from BABE: PIG IN THE CITY) chose a less obvious path.
To me it’s the character study part of the movie that makes it great. Yes, there is a boogie man (person of boogie?) called The Babadook that seems to be haunting them after they read about it in a (not appropriate for all ages) pop-up book, but the actual monster part of it isn’t very scary in my opinion. For most of the movie it seems more reasonable to read as hysteria than as actual supernatural happenings. But what made it a really strong movie for me is its detailed, emotional portrait of this woman and everything she’s going through as a person. In fact, it’s everything else besides the monster that’s scary.
Amelia’s definitely having a hard time, but she puts on a brave face at first. Her son is clearly a weirdo, and she doesn’t know how to get him to chill the fuck out. His violence and monster talk get him ejected from class and from birthday parties. He gets in bed with her every night so she can’t sleep, she can’t even take a minute to masturbate. She stares longingly at couples, she seems haunted not just by a monster but by the clothes that were once worn by her husband, now just laying there empty, like her life. She doesn’t fit in with her sister or her sister’s friends, and has no patience for their attempts to relate to her situation. She does have an elderly neighbor and a young co-worker who try to look out for her, but she’s bad at accepting their kindness.
Thanks to her son’s tendency to un-self-consciously blurt out uncomfortable truths, we know why around the time of his birthday is a bad time of year for her emotional well being: her husband died the day Samuel was born. It’s been 7 years but she can’t forget that she traded her life partner for this little handful here who keeps tossing firecrackers inside the fucking house for crying out loud go to your room.
This is an example of why it’s valuable to have different types of people making movies: it’s the rare horror movie with a very female point of view. It’s about being alone in parenting but wanting to be strong enough to do it on your own. About knowing your kid and not accepting the bullshit that the school or relatives or friends say about him. But also about the fear of being a bad parent. It’s both understandable and questionable when she begs the doctor to prescribe the kid sedatives. And I’m sure these things are relatable to fathers, too, but they are specifically about the expectations people put on mothers and on themselves as mothers.
Because also it’s about a fear of not loving your kid enough. About the part of her that blames him for losing her husband. About the fear of flipping out and laying all her frustrations on the kid. We all can fear getting to the end of our rope, but a single mother fears it in a different way because she has different responsibilities that are put at risk.
So also it’s about her mental health. She keeps getting more stressed and less rested until she is actually, undeniably acting crazy. If your whole life has become being a mother, how must it feel to realize you’re unfit to be a mother? It’s devastating, but at that point the audience sympathy, or at least mine, transfers to the kid. Now all the sudden it’s about the horrifying situation of a parent not being themselves. He seems to know that the Babadook he keeps telling her not to let in is not some prick with claws and a stupid hat, it’s a side of her that she needs to keep at bay. When he says he doesn’t want her to go away I don’t know if that means for her usual nice person personality to go away and be replaced by the crazy bitch with the large knife, or if it means they’re gonna take her away to the hospital, like they clearly ought to. Some social service people have been coming around and you really feel for her when things look bad and she feels like a total deadbeat. But maybe it’s time to admit that she is.
There’s a cool little bit when the shit goes down and she keeps trying to pick the kid up. Every time she reaches for him he flies across the room like they’re the matching sides of magnets. It’s like a nightmare with an obvious interpretation: she’s afraid of losing him, of not being able to protect him.
It should be said, by the way, that these are two great performances here. Davis gives a really layered, evolving performance of a woman falling apart, and God only knows how the fuck they found a little weirdo like Wiseman. It’s one of those kid performances where it has to be some kind of combination of innate talent, a director who knows how to work with children, and dumb luck. He’s too young to have learned how to act like that. He just does it.
It’s funny, all the more difficult, human stuff is what works best for me in this movie. The easier, traditional horror tricks are the only part that I have some problems with. I don’t think they even follow the simple rules set up by the children’s book about hearing a knock and there’s the Babadook or whatever it is. I don’t think Kent cared about that part very much.
In the spirit of mild negativity let me bring up one insignificant nitpick that I don’t think many will agree with me on: I am not a fan of this spooky pop-up book that the story centers around. It’s done in such a modern cute-but-evil cartoon style, that would only be done in the last decade or two, post-NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. I know the pop-up book isn’t a hundreds-of-years-old type of artform, so it can’t be a wood carving or something, but I still think it would seem more mysterious and creepy if it had a more timeless look, something that could’ve existed in the mother’s childhood or earlier. A book that makes you think “jesus, what were they showing kids back then? This is creepy.” Like, I remember I had this book as a kid that had old nursery rhymes and stuff and there was a picture that was a realistic illustration of poodles walking upright wearing old timey clothes and having a tea party or something. That was not in any way meant to be scary but it was creepy as shit. That’s what this should feel like in my opinion. It shouldn’t be some cutesy intentional horror thing from the clearance rack at Hot Topic. It should seem at first like maybe it was made by some weirdo with poor judgment about what to show to kids.
That’s kind of a small detail, but it’s an example of why this was almost but not quite a home run for me. It definitely wins the fight, but not by knock out, it has to go to the judges. And other sports metaphors. Like the other critical smash horror movie of the year, IT FOLLOWS, I like the idea of the ending, but didn’t really feel it while watching it. And a great horror movie, as much as it crawls into your brain and fucks you up later, it also oughta force you to feel it while you’re watching.
In one very important and rare way, though, THE BABADOOK does. This is a uniquely emotional horror movie. It had a little bit of that TREE OF LIFE quality of putting me into such an authentic child’s perspective that it brought up long forgotten childhood memories. That’s something special.
The story ends up at an interesting place that I could compare to TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D or even THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS, so go ahead and try to decode that if you want, Alan Turing. It’s kinda brave and it makes sense on a symbolic level, but it left me thinking and interpreting symbols instead of leaving my heart beating fast. I think at the end, if it’s gonna be a horror movie, it needed to stop fucking around and have a serious visceral victory or loss to truly seal the deal. If that had happened I would’ve been babadooking it out with everybody else about this being a new horror classic. And who knows, maybe it is, but I’m not convinced yet. And that’s okay. It’s still a really good one.
Let’s not have a part 2 though on this one in my opinion.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.