AUSTRALIAN HORROR movie The Babadook is gonna scare the babadook out of you. Writer/director Jennifer Kent's first feature is fueling nightmares and rave reviews—and not just because of its creepy-ass shadow man, who lurks in the dark corners of bedroom ceilings. It's because The Babadook is incredibly smart and insightful. Here's a horror film that's legitimately good (!), and has thoughts about the hardships of motherhood, the frustration of being a child, and the psychological dangers of tamping down feelings.
The Babadook is the story of a sleep-slagged mother, Amelia (Essie Davis), and her trying son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Samuel has a monster fixation—a problem that only deepens after Amelia reads him Mister Babadook, a pop-up storybook that mysteriously appears on his bookshelf. It has drawings that would freeze Edward Gorey's heart, along with a sinister message: "If it's in a word, or in a book, you can't get rid of the Babadook." Samuel's definitely not sleeping after that bit of heebie-jeebie sauce, and neither is Amelia, who's a repressed tangle of emotions. She's been sleepwalking through life since the death of her beloved husband in a car crash, six years ago, on the day Samuel was born.
"People say this film could've been a drama—that it has a lot of depth and you could've taken out the monster and it still would've worked," Aussie director Jennifer Kent told me in a phone interview. "But for me, it's a real integral part of what's making the film reach people. In fact, if I'd approached it in that way, it probably could've been quite melodramatic."
Amelia internalizes her basest human emotions—a lack of maternal feelings toward Samuel, even a dislike and resentment of him—to the point that they become monstrous.
"I was fascinated by the idea of a character who just couldn't, for whatever reason, say something really big. The horror was really a byproduct of a woman who had to face this terrible thing," Kent says. "I think one thing horror does is suck an audience in and make things very literal. An audience is forced to feel things along with the main character, which is a great thing for the story."
Which brings us to one of The Babadook's many wonderments (a long list, which stretches from striking set design to nods to Repulsion, Eraserhead, and sinister silent films): It's a film about a woman, written and directed by a woman, and it deals with questions women have. Is my child a monster? Am I a terrible mother? Am I awful for having these thoughts? At one point, the frazzled Amelia chides Samuel, "You don't have to say everything that goes through your head." Meanwhile, Amelia says nothing that goes through her head—she's alone, simmering in forbidden emotions as she represses her grief, love, and human connections.
"Beware of the woman who is always saying they're fine, because they're not," Kent says, who's not a mother herself, but empathizes. "It's not a given that motherhood is an easy ride. It's hard, and you have to sublimate a lot of yourself. You have to become subservient to another human being, and that's a really tough thing to transition into for a lot of women."
It's even tougher when the feelings monster starts haunting your bedroom every night. So is The Babadook a stylish and scary film about a woman losing it? Or is its problem child just spiraling into delusions? Or maybe the knife-handed Mister Babadook is real—after all, his name was said in a word, and in a book... a creepy book, in an even creepier film.