A Horror Movie With a Soul as Big as its Scares.
DIRECTED BY JENNIFER KENT/2014
The Babadook is one of the most buzzed-about horror movie in years. Possibly not since Paranormal Activity has a horror movie been this anticipated. From word-of-mouth coming from festivals, from critics gushing over it, and even William Friedkin tweeting that it is the scariest movie he has ever seen. Well I can attest it may not be the scariest movie ever. Friedkin is still the director of that movie. But what makes the movie work is not the scares, but the heart behind the film.
Not that the film isn’t scary, because it definitely is. The film has a budget of around 30 thousand dollars, all raised on kickstarter, and gets the most out of both the budget and the mostly single location. It also gets the most out of what’s not seen. But in the right way, as in there is no other choice. When Spielberg didn’t show the shark in Jaws, it was because of the budget and mechanical problems. Unfortunately though that has caused every studio exec over the next 40 years say that what’s not seen is the scariest, like they thought of it. It’s really best when the artist has no other choice. In The Babadook, director Jennifer Kent truly had no other choice. With most of her budget going to the art department and her minimal locations, which basically consisted of the house characters live in, she was forced to compensate with scares and emotion.
In the story, Amelia (Essie Davis, who is excellent in the role) is a mother trying to keep her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman, who is also excellent) on the right path. He has been experiencing emotional problems growing up without a father. Seven years ago, while driving Amelia to the hospital for her to give birth to Samuel, her husband, Samuel’s father, was killed in a car accident. It is something that has hung over them since.
Samuel’s newest issues have to do with the Babadook, a creature in creepy pop-up book that gives a threatening message to children. Amelia thinks it is inappropriate for Samuel to read such a book but Samuel thinks it is too late. The Babadook is already in the house, haunting them; wanting to possess them. Samuel, being the man of the house, wants to protect his mother. He begins creating weapons to fight off the spirit. Kent is so smart as a director. She knows how to weave Samuel’s reactions to the Babadook (whether it’s signs of violent tendencies, hallucinating, or convulsive screaming) in line with a victim of a child experiencing extreme emotional trauma.
The Babadook is the best blend of fear, brains and heart since The Orphanage. As someone who loves horror, but doesn’t necessarily believe in ghost, the film gets to the heart of what humans get out of obsessing about ghosts and spirits. I love horror because other emotions are easier to fake, but fear is honest. If you see what someone is scared of, you see who they are. We fear death. We are consumed with the experience of dying what the dead have felt. We say ghosts who come back have unresolved work to do, but those unresolved feelings could just be a projection of what we feel about the situation. The dead could be perfectly happy dead, but we bring them back with our guilt and our pain.
Those who study horror movies try to name what individual movies are about. One is about war. One is about the crimes of our past. Night of the Living Dead is about racism. The Shining is about Native American genocide. The theories go on. Kent simply and powerfully says that horror is about something much broader, yet relatable. It’s about loss.
Which begs the question: is The Babadook about the pain of the past? Or is it about a spirit trying to kill us? And in the end, aren’t those two things essentially the same thing?