The Babadook Dir. Jennifer Kent

[IFC Films/Causeway Films; 2014]

Styles: psychological thriller, drama, horror
Others: Repulsion, Jacob’s Ladder, Images, The Shining, Pontypool, Don’t Look Now

Way, way out, in the far flung reaches of exhaustion lies the Babadook. Preying on the beleaguered, he is Mandrake the Magician, a Gashlycrumb Tiny, the Quaker Oates man, late-Bette Davis, Bela Lugosi, Freddie Krueger, Edward Scissorhands… He is the accumulated smudge of all the things we encounter through screens and books, never permitted to be more than a temporarily irksome diversion. He is the chaos-baiter, scratching at some hard-to-access recess of our bodies while we strive to cultivate order and comfort in our daily lives. He’s the reason we give in to resentment, paranoia and destructiveness. He looms large, feeding on our alienation and anxiety, not even needing to make an overtly threatening gesture. His arms jut rigidly out at his sides, and his expression is frozen, a shrill cartoon mocking your dogged tenacity. Babadook is the walls that squeeze on you like a grave, replacing the ones that once were thought to protect you. And if you try to break through them, it’s gonna get messy.

Going head to head with the Babadook is Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). As he is all too happy to blurt out to strangers, Amelia was pregnant with Sam and en route to the hospital when her husband crashed their car and died. Now she and her impertinent, consistently combative son must fend for themselves. Amelia is saintly in her devotion, even bending over backwards for those on the periphery of her Tasmanian devil-wrangling. She positively radiates with love and generosity in her fastidiousness. But the cracks are beginning to show. She needs. Her grief needs closure that can never be given, her body needs to feel less like a security blanket and more like something desired. Yet, though she longs for sexual pleasure, it seems what is more largely required is tenderness. Her elderly neighbor provides this, but in her distress, her natural feelings of warmth toward the lonely woman become toxically co-mingled with inkling that she could be looking at her future. A man from work is sweet to her and doting, but she spots the man making out with another coworker in the parking garage.

Sam is not the monster that Amelia’s sister and his school teachers think he is. He is a product of circumstance and desperately needy in his own right. His destructive actions seem motivated by overcompensation. He’s just a 6-year-old kid, and the one-parent dichotomy is throwing his perspective into upheaval. The Babadook first shows itself in the form of a mysterious gothic pop-up book. In no time it rushes up to greet them in its skittery Ju-on ghost-fashion and forces Sam to reconcile with the fact that his homemade projectile weapons are not just for play. His combative nature is exacerbated by the Babadook’s presence and he is beset. It’s not too long after that Amelia finds herself fending off the monster’s presence, her grown-up clinging to reason and pills only emboldening it. Rather than the mother and son being a solace to one another in their isolation, they become playthings for the Babadook. His carnivalesque, jagged, stretched shadow essence is fleeting. Through her sheer bewilderment and his impressionability, the creature is most palpable. He lets their uncertainty about one another jockey with their familiarity and love till their home becomes a nesting ground for malevolence.

While it’s suitable that there is a lot of charged critical and word-of-mouth hype for this film, it’d be a mistake to go in expecting too much. While it’s more original than The Conjuring, it is also not the shrewd, staid character study that more sophisticated audiences might prefer. It is still laudable for its murky, yet unhinged temperament. Horror is often a shrill, ostentatious genre, and while this is no exception, there is a charming ungainliness to it all. Sam’s hysteria is not morose — he writhes and screams and kicks at a head splitting pitch. Even good horror films are a kind of a slog, when the performances are convincing and the ordeal is prolonged. What makes The Babadook so re-watchable is how fun (almost funny, at times) they manage to make watching Amelia and Sam’s peculiar struggle. By not drawing a line under what’s real and what’s imagined, the viewer is truly left alone to enjoy the chaos. If you take the film’s ending as cautiously life affirming (be thankful we don’t have to go through this alone), then all’s the better. In a way, this is more a darkly fun horror (think a more atmospheric Drag Me To Hell) with dramatic overtones than a best-of-both-worlds situation.

Nonetheless, while Director Jennifer Kent’s ease with garish horror tropes is key, what’s less obviously essential to the telling of this dark fable is the nuance of Amelia’s (a harrowing star turn from Essie Davis) struggle to put a brave face on her stresses as a single mother and widow. Early in the film, before the Babadook shows up, there is a little moment when Sam makes his mother smile with a magic trick and gently strokes her face. After this they embrace, him moaning with pleasure, squeezing a little too hard and holding on a little too long. She breaks the hug abruptly and curtly tells him to stop, offering a forced apologetic smile at his surprise. Later we see the boy sleeping with his arms and legs wrapped around his mom as though he’s siphoning her love in his sleep, his teeth audibly grinding. She gently dislodges herself from him scoots to the edge-most opposite side of the bed, gratefully falling to sleep. These scenes, along with the all-too-real sequences of twitchy fatigue and stress-based delirium, establish the hermetically queasy world of a crippled nuclear family. She is a good mother, and despite all her boy puts her through, is determined to tough things out. Perhaps she does, but the ending’s combination of deadpan humor (the Babadook is kept locked in the cellar on a diet of worms) and after-the-storm resolution masks an unsettling truth: that rather than being beset upon, the two ushered in this menace together. And they’re stuck with it for the foreseeable future.

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