The Babadook makes psychological horror fashionable again
FILM by Jorge Ignacio Castillo
RPL Film Theatre
After a never-ending parade of watered-down remakes (looking at you, Poltergeist), copycat villains and inept victims, it seems finally the horror genre has turned a corner.
Two movies that originated worlds apart have brought substance back to the most disreputable film genre outside porn and rom-coms. The American one, It Follows, tackles the long-term repercussions of sexual assault. Australia’s The Babadook deals with the ever-present nature of grief.
It also has more genuinely unsettling moments than all five Paranormal Activity movies combined.
The Babadook is also relatable: seven years after the traumatizing death of her husband, Amelia (powerhouse performance by Essie Davis) is very far from getting over it. Overworked, depressed and overwhelmed by Samuel, her little bundle of mayhem, Amelia hasn’t seen a hairbrush in weeks and is one setback away from total mental breakdown. The straw that breaks the camel’s back is a sinister (and awesome) pop-up book of undetermined origin titled, Mister Babadook.
A figure akin to the Sandman and similar entities in cultures everywhere, the Babadook takes hold of Samuel’s imagination. It’s no surprise: it embodies the most common childhood fears (darkness, abandonment, closets) and exploits adults’ most pressing concern — the feeling that something is not right with their children. As mischief escalates, the question becomes is Samuel unbalanced — a plausible possibility — or is there another force at play? Something Babadookian, perhaps?
There’s a lot to like in The Babadook, which could easily pass for a love letter to single mothers. Amelia is a very understandable character, both at her best and worst moments. She’s fallible but not stupid. Samuel can be nightmare and he has a propensity for violence, but most of the time he’s an average, manic seven year-old.
Without saying too much, the movie successfully subverts audience expectations in interesting ways. Not a small feat in any genre and a towering accomplishment in horror.
The Babadook crosses the border between waking reality and the land of dreams often and effectively, hindering the audience’s grasp on the events taking place on screen, and it’s all the better for it. Everything in our field of vision is slightly askew so the audience can’t get comfortable, even during the quiet times.
There are elements of The Exorcist, The Omen and even Home Alone in The Babadook but all things considered, this movie is its own beast. First-time writer/director Jennifer Kent has a unique voice and is not afraid to look into the darker corners of motherhood. We should hear from her again.
Ultimately, The Babadook is about the power of grief, particularly over those who can’t cope with loss (towards the end, the point is underscored with increasing bluntness), and the question of the grief-stricken can regain control. It’s extremely rare for a horror movie to deliver a nuanced message it in such compelling fashion. A must-see.