As the buzz surrounding Jennifer Kent’s debut feature The Babadook continues, horror fans would be forgiven for their skepticism. The praise is reaching critical mass. Director William Friedkin (The Exorcist) has “never seen a more terrifying film.” Stephen King has called it “deeply disturbing and highly recommended.” It has a near-perfect rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and boasts “universal acclaim” on Metacritic.
For anyone that’s been into horror as long as I have, this kind of universal appreciation is immediately suspect. Generally, it’s a good sign that the movie is a tame, mainstream affair good for teenage dates and on-demand caprice, but not a serious piece of horror.
In this case, I’m happy to confirm that such doubt is misplaced. The Babadook is a terrifying, thoughtful, and remarkably well-crafted experience. That much is clear.
From its earliest moments to its parting shot, Kent’s film reaches out and grabs the audience with an immersive rhythm that isn’t just rare for horror, but for film at large. Kent’s visual palate is as mercilessly glum as it is internally cohesive, with the subject picture book (anagram: “a bad book”) serving as an expressionistic treatment of the characters’ alienation in waking life.
An especially big part of the film’s effectiveness is its use of sound. Kent and her sound engineers deserve much of the credit for concocting the pit-in-stomach thumps and excruciating croaks of the film’s harassing specter.
But Amelia (Essie Davis) and Samuel (Noah Wiseman) deserve just as much credit for establishing the film’s aural component. Some of the most memorable and disturbing scenes involve Amelia and Sam simply screaming at each other, possessed by nothing other than their own hysterical passion. It’s these interactions that form the film’s awe-inspiring sense of intimacy. During these scenes, I frequently had to remind myself that I wasn’t hearing monsters shriek, but two people at their most powerfully human.
The movie has its weak points. The Babadook entity itself is hokey almost as often as it is terrifying, even considering how awesome it is that he’s modeled after Lon Channey in London After Midnight (1927). Towards the end Kent overindulges a bit in psycho-allegorical sequences like cathartic regurgitation of black goo and heartfelt conversations from beyond the grave. But these facially too-literal missteps almost always correct themselves and translate into clever devices, such as when the husband’s smooth voice devolves into wicked gravel to deliver the absolutely chilling refrain: “You can bring me the boy. You can bring me the boy. You can bring me the boy.”
Even considering all of its terror-inducing technical brilliance, I’m hesitant to begin insisting that it is necessarily the scariest movie of the last ten years. I freely admit to having some night terrors of my own following this movie, but in a decade that has included Paranormal Activity (2007), The Strangers (2008), House of the Devil (2009) and The Conjuring (2013), I’m more inclined to situate Kent’s film in the context of a horror decade primarily concerned with giving viewers a visceral, carnival haunted house experience (incidentally, Kent made nearly identical remarks in a recent interview).
As I’ve written about before, I distinguish this recent scare-based trend from the more subversive and creative horror tradition of the 1970’s through the 1990’s. The Babadook sits somewhere in between; in form and content, it’s not all that different from Insidious (2010), just a whole lot smarter.
So if we’re going to truly start talking about what makes The Babadook special, we’ll have to look beyond its mere scariness.
A few months ago, I considered demonic possession horror from a feminist/psychoanalytic perspective. Since The Babadook hovers deftly between demonic possession and haunted house subgenres, it’s no surprise that Kent has some of the same stuff on her mind. Namely, Kent is looking at the repressed and unconscious psychic structures associated with pregnancy and childrearing. As such, the movie does a remarkable job of striking all the right chords of the unconscious, awakening a number of our hidden fears and desires.
As a movie about a son who loves his mother far too much, and a mother who resents her son equally so, this film’s true success resides in its engrossing consideration of the dark complexities of the familial unit. The Babadook is a sinister yet unspeakably intimate omnipresence for Amelia and Sam, as it mediates certain issues that Sam is too young to understand and Amelia can’t bear to think about, like the incest taboo and fantasies of maternal filicide.
Missing a father or father-substitute, Sam’s oedipal fixation on his mother is closely tied with his supra-boyish aggression. Amelia watches this happening but directs intervention to all the wrong places, including attacks on her own psyche. Her drift toward persecutory psychosis only serves to enhance Sam’s fantasies of omnipotence. As Sam deepens his belief that he is his mother’s supreme protector and thus the sole object of her desire, he terrorizes Amelia yet further and she sinks deeper into paranoia. In this way, the two of them form a dreadful libidinal circuit.
By drawing a certain identity between the deceased husband-father and the Babadook, Kent also explores the notion of paternal estrangement vis-à-vis the mother-child dyad. In the story, the husband-father’s literal death at the moment of his child’s birth stands in for the symbolic death inherent in fatherhood, as the child emerges to become the mother’s primary concern and establishes the final referent by which paternal masculinity is constituted.
Never inhabiting one character exclusively or training on one particular aspect of familial unmentionable, the story’s eponymous phantom gives body to much of what is fundamentally discomfiting about reproduction and family life. Judging by the story’s uncommonly shrewd ending, we’re left with an understanding that these issues aren’t something you simply conquer and get rid of. Indeed, “you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” Rather, they’re realities that you live with, buried in the basement of your unconscious and dealt with as-needed.
As a horror film The Babadook may not be perfect. But from a perspective less genre-oriented, simply as a film, The Babadook is not far from it.
Follow syvo on Twitter.