in Shocktober

The Babadook (2014)

At the start of his review of The Taking of Deborah Logan, John talked about how versatile the horror genre is, which resonated with me because of all the movies I’ve reviewed this month, The Babadook is the first one I though was actually scary. Maybe that’s because this isn’t the story of guitar guy getting revenge, or a haunted spaceship, or someone who is really skinny, or people hopping the border post-giant alien invasion; it’s a much more relatable tale. This is the story of a haunted pop-up book, and the evil demon that comes along with it.

Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother somewhere in Australia who really needs a break. She’s got a demanding job as a nurse and an even more demanding six-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who spends him free time making weapons and annoying people. His obnoxious behavior gets him in trouble at school, so Amelia pulls him out to find a new place. But the only people Amelia can rely on can’t or won’t help taking care of the boy, leaving her forced to spend every waking (and most sleeping) hour with him.

One night at bedtime, Samuel pulls a book out called “Mister Babadook” for his mom to read to him. It’s a brief, disturbing pop-up story about a monster that won’t go away and becomes stronger if you deny him. This is alarming and upsetting to Samuel, who decides the monster is real. Amelia tries to comfort him, but over the next few days some weird stuff starts happening: doors open themselves, she gets weird calls, and finally Samuel has what appears to be a seizure. What’s worse, the book, which Amelia had destroyed, reappears with a new ending: the mother in the book kills her dog, her son, and then herself.

I think a lot of what makes a movie scary is the unknown, which is why I thought the last third of this movie, when all the real shit goes down, is actually the least frightening. Early on, when I didn’t really know the characters or the stakes, it was really easy to worry something terrible would happen. The book, with it’s detailed, elaborate pop-ups, is probably the scariest part of the movie – it’s really well done. But the end of the movie has a lot of scares we’ve seen before: doors creakily opening themselves, figures in the shadows, lots of bugs pouring out of the wall. The end is more concerned with surrealism and the symbolism of the Babadook than just making him unsettling.

That symbolism is obvious but nonetheless potent. We eventually learn that Amelia’s husband died in a car crash while driving her to the hospital to give birth to Samuel. And so it didn’t take long to figure out that the Babadook is some sort of manifestation of her grief and resentment, feeling she’s ashamed to still have nearly seven years since Samuel’s father died. But grief is a terrible monster, and the movie’s solution for that problem is provocative, at least compared to contemporary advice.

But don’t let me focus my praise purely on the story, for this is quite a stylish movie as well. It does an amazing job portraying Amelia’s absolute exhaustion, using time-lapse and makeup to make it super clear that there’s no rest for poor Amelia. The design of the Babadook itself is simple, but used effectively by having many variations of the character present itself throughout the film. One of my favorites is a montage of silent film featuring several forms of the character. All you need is a top hat, pale skin, and pointy fingers and you have our man.

Also, I probably shouldn’t have gone this far without praising the work of the two main members of the cast. Essie Davis is put through the wringer in this movie, having to not only play the tired parent, but someone who could kind of hate her kid and still be sympathetic. Similarly, child actor Noah Wiseman had to make Samuel a real shit without losing the fact that he is a kid going through the real struggle of not having a father and the fictional struggle of being hunted by an invisible monster.

When someone you care about dies, you lose a part of yourself. Like any wound, that loss will heal in time, it you treat it right, but it will leave a scar. What’s worse, if you ignore it, it may grow even worse, and if you pick at it, well, that can make things worse too. Hell, you might even find yourself contemplating strangling your dog and stabbing your boy. Don’t do these things. Face your fears, then lock them away, then feed them worms. This is a weird metaphor.