The Babadook is one of those excellent little horror films that reminds how much scaring can be done with good acting and a competent director. It’s delightfully spooky and eerie, with interesting sound choices and great cinematography and scene setting.
Plus, it’s a film about a woman, written and directed by a woman—Jennifer Kent. In the first half, The Babadook offers up a moving portrait of a profoundly ordinary woman parenting a troubled child. In the second half, well, things take a turn for the terrifying. Essie Davis’s performance as the mother, Amelia, blows the roof off, proving once again that the bias against genre films by those who give out awards and accolades is entirely misplaced.
In this Australian horror-thriller, Amelia is a single mother who struggles to manage her emotionally-disturbed, monster-obsessed son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), only to find that one of his monstrosities might be real. The Babadook, a sinister figure with a black trenchcoat and talon-like fingers, first shows up in a strange pop-up book that appears in Amelia and Samuel’s gloomy house. As Amelia’s isolation grows so does the power of the Babadook to terrorize her and Samuel.
The Babadook is essentially a haunted house story, albeit one where the “ghost” seems to be deliberately tormenting these people (rather than being attached to the house itself). Haunted house narratives are often about the dark side of family life (think The Conjuring or the first season of American Horror Story). These stories may be interested in infidelity or children’s maturation or even the common challenges of marriage and parenting. The message is that something sinister (mental illness, homosexuality, pick your symbolic menace) is always lying just under the floorboards, wanting to tear the nuclear family apart.
The Babadook toys with this genre. It’s a haunted family story, but in The Babadook the nuclear family has already been destroyed. Amelia is a single mother because her husband died in a car crash on the way to the hospital to deliver Samuel. It’s been seven years and even if Amelia no longer talks about her husband, her grief lingers. Amelia and Samuel live in his house, a house that should be idyllic and instead feels oppressive. Amelia has relegated his belongs to the basement, ostensibly an attempt to put her grief away that is belied by how she blocks these items and her husband’s memory from Samuel.