dir: Jennifer Kent
So much horror is linked to motherhood, or being a parent. It’s a visceral, fundamental connection. The Babadook is by no means a completely original horror flick, but it is a good one that bathes in, wallows in this terror of the monstrously maternal.
Maybe the roots of the idea are a fear of motherhood, but they could also be a terror of what the possibilities are when you are bringing a life into this horrible, beautiful world. That fear could be as universal as any of the fears represented in flicks as diverse as Rosemary’s Baby, Alien, The Ring, Dark Water through to We Need to Talk About Kevin.
In this harrowing flick – make no mistake, this is an exhausting and harrowing, uncomfortably intimate flick - the monster keeps changing places. As the film begins, we could quite rightly think that the monster is the one the main character has given birth to.
The opening scene has a woman (Essie Davis) being driven to a hospital as she seems to be in the initial stages of childbirth. As if going into labour isn’t painful enough, the unknown voice promising her that they’re only 10 minutes away from the hospital also manages to get them into a horrific car accident.
Seven years later, we know that that voice didn’t make it, though mother and child did. Mother tries to sleep; child cries out in terror during the night; mother searches under beds and closets to reassure poor pale consumptive looking Samuel (Noah Wiseman) that there are no monsters about, that they are safe and everything’s okay.
Invariably, he climbs into bed with her, invariably she gets no more sleep, what with the child’s teeth-grinding, and his unconscious habit of clasping her such that she is being choked while he sleeps.
Repeat until insanity ensues. In this first section, which builds very slowly to what is to come, Samuel is the horror we would dread as parents or potential parents. He is fixated on the bogey man, he constructs weapons with which to fight this unseen enemy, he is odd and off-putting and won’t even let the poor woman either sleep or get some relief by using an electric ‘mother’s little helper’, and I’m not referring to the pills the Rolling Stones sang about. He is everything a parent could fear about what could happen once they become a parent.
You fear the loss of time, time gone that can no longer be devoted to binge watching cable shows, doing cleanses and trawling through Instagram, but the greatest loss is that of autonomy. And then there’s the fact that your one and only beautiful, angelic, wonderful child is a whining, whinging oddball that other kids fear and other parents judge you over.
You can hear it in the way that the thoroughly magnificent Essie Davis, probably most famous in Australia at least for the Phryne Fisher Murder Mysteries, speaks to her son in a plaintive, pleading baby voice appropriate for a child much younger than the son she has. And the absence of her partner looms large over proceedings as well. So large.
Oscar’s absence (through the selfishness of being dead) is the defining characteristic of her son’s life, and it’s not as if he doesn’t know it, or sense it, or feel it in his bones. Even when he becomes a screaming ball of need, with a voice that could cut through concrete, his spoken and unspoken lament to his mother is of always knowing that his mother resents him for being alive, with the flipside being that it resulted in her husband’s death.
Unaddressed, undealt with, this monstrous grief and resentment becomes a monster itself. Coupled with guilt (over her feelings towards her son, and for when she increasingly lashes out at him to disastrous effect) and insomnia, this becomes either the perfect storm for madness or the perfect recipe for creating a monster.
Look, like most horror flicks, this has psychological underpinnings beneath it, beneath what the monster is and is meant to represent. And there’s also the liminal aspect of it, in terms of there being something between the literal and the symbolic nature of what we’re seeing. For much of the flick we’re watching a woman struggling with motherhood, really struggling with it. Television, advertising, chick lit books and Mother’s Day cards given a vision of what motherhood specifically or parenthood generally is like which is at complete odds with the lives most of us lead.
The horrible moments of being a parent, those times when you lose hope and feel terrified not that a monster is going to ‘get’ you, but that you’re never going to sleep again and that your bad parenting has created a psychopath: there’s no card for that. There’s no baby formula ad replete with jaunty, uplifting music that captures those moments and give you hope that things will get all better. You become convinced that you will never sleep again and nothing will ever get better. Ever. It's called despair, heard of it?
And there is no consolation for those truly dark moments when your anxiety conjures images in your imagination of ways you dread you could ever actually lash out at your kids. And yet The Babadook argues that those frustrations and anxieties, if left unanswered, if you keep trying to tamp them down and keep them trapped in the basement of your subconscious, well, they will rise up and destroy you and those closest to you.
Here I have to diverge from what I usually do in my reviews in which I avoid spoilers as best I can; in this instance I’m more interested in critiquing The Babadook, which means spoilers are mandatory.
So if, as I contend, the ‘monster’ at first is Samuel, made so by his mother’s anxieties, frustrations, resentments and such (which in itself could be seen as a critique of the whole obsession with parenting / attachment parenting / helicopter parenting stuff so prevalent in the chattering media), then once Samuel asks his mother to read from a certain book, he is released from that status.
They’ve never seen this book before, and it’s strange that it could just appear in the house (yeah, right), but once they read it both Amelia’s and Samuel’s fears literally become manifest. The book tells a warning tale that if Amelia lets the Babadook into their house, it will then literally invade her as well.
Similarly, as if the body anxiety of the concept of an ‘alien’ substance invading a woman’s body (like a dark viscous semen) and making her do evil aren’t enough, when Amelia destroys the book in a fearful rage, she also starts seeing visions of her mourned for husband Oscar asking her to give him the boy, upon which they can all be reunited.
Ten points for guessing what ‘give me the boy’ really means. It’s also not a coincidence that these glimpses of her dead husband occur in the basement. The mysterious basement is where she has sealed off all her husband’s stuff, as a symbol of her desire not to allow herself to grieve in a healthy way (whatever that would be), but instead to hermetically seal it off as if he might come back if only she keeps it perfectly sealed.
Into that basement, which is obviously her own sub/unconscious (this film would be a Jungian psychoanalyst’s wet dream if Jungian psychoanalysts still existed in this day and age) goes the son, both trying to find out about his father and also to prepare for the monster that is coming. The mother, however, despite trying to keep it under lock and key, guards this lair (and her despair) jealously and violently. That’s where she keeps her repressed trauma and denial, and no-one is allowed to fuck with that.
It’s only after the son ventured into that place that the wheels of her psyche really start to fall off. That’s when the book appears. Then the book mysteriously re-appears after she’s destroyed it, only now it has additional chapters outlining the horrors that Amelia is soon to perpetrate.
Is it a coincidence that at a child’s party where the weary Amelia, already on the downward spiral, mentions when asked that she used to write children’s books? It’s no more a coincidence than anything else in this densely packed film. It’s also not a coincidence that virtually all the advice anyone ever gives her is thoroughly, utterly useless, however well-intentioned, like almost all parenting advice.
I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to point out that it’s fairly clear that Amelia is the one who created the book she so fears. It’s fairly obvious that she’s also the one who painstakingly puts it back together again and then adds further foreshadowings of what she’s going to do.
It’s very hard to watch, and it doesn’t really pull that many punches in its pursuit of creating an entire picture of parental anxiety and grief gone berserk. Yes, there are many elements that seem to just be standard supernatural imagery from many a fright flick, but for me this didn’t detract from the story or the horror that was really going on. Seeing Amelia chase her son with murderous intent is quite horrible (and so it should be), and seeing him fight for his life is stressful, yes, but I can’t recall a scene as powerful or as heartbreaking as the one where Samuel tries to save his mum from herself with a gentle touch to her face as she’s trying to strangle the life out of him.
That… that gutted me, seeing that, but as odd as this sounds, it was a beautiful scene.
Horror flicks are not known for their happy endings, in fact they’d be the genre least likely to work by being so accommodating, but yet again the director Jennifer Kent manages to find a way to make the film work on those multiple levels without having to compromise the story in order to conform to any particular requirements. And even then the ending isn't necessarily a happy one, considering that it's really a depiction of mental illness gone amuck kept secret without the intervention of mental health practitioners of any variety, there's nothing to prove that matters won't worsen again. In a way it's even more chilling to be left open ended, with the illusion of a solution that's been sorted out in tacit agreement between mother and son.
I recall having an argument with one of my co-workers who thought that making the Babadook a literal, physical entity at the end detracted from everything that had gone on for the preceding hours, and I still disagree with her. She felt it was the makers having their cake and eating it too, but I disagree. It can work on the literal and the symbolic levels, given what’s been put together to construct the manner in which Amelia and Samuel’s character and their relationship with each other and their grief becomes manageable.
Does that mean the basement really is a basement, and that there’s really a monster at the bottom that occasionally needs to be fed? See, that doesn’t undo any of the good work done previous for me.
Why? Because since when do we have basements in Victorian two-storey terrace houses in Australia? Since never, that’s when.
Just kidding. What I mean is, though it seems like what the story was actually saying is that there was this actual entity that ‘invaded’ Amelia when her defences were down, it’s still just a manifestation of her dark self, the one unwilling to grieve for her husband or forgive the child she held responsible for the father’s death. By occasionally visiting the basement, by engaging with that grief, by allowing (again with the symbolism) her child to celebrate his own birthday for the first time in his life, something she always fought against with the misguided belief it was keeping her husband somehow alive, she gets to ‘feed’ the monster without letting it overwhelm her again and making her kill everyone in a fit of sexually frustrated rage.
I know how horrible this sounds, but it’s really quite a well constructed and seriously grounded story, quite a world away from most horror flicks (and 99 per cent of the Australian horror flicks I’ve ever seen). In fact, it feels like it doesn’t even fit within the genre, though it’s most likely the only appropriate one considering the content and the tone.
As a story it may not be profound (it was profound enough for me), and it make look like it’s constructed from overly familiar materials, but it’s a dense, psychologically resonant film about modern parenting, with great performances and a compelling hook. I’m not sure it would resonate as deeply with me had I not been a parent (a parent, I might add who loves being a parent and thankfully has never experienced this level of berserkness ever and hopes never to do so). The horror imagery is the least compelling aspect of this visceral, masterful film, and Essie Davis is sublime in her complicated performance, and at no stage looked like she was even acting. She achieved a Tilda Swinton-level of believability, and that’s about the highest compliment I can offer any actor.
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