The Babadook is the first foray into feature film for Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent. It sees single mother Amelia struggling to cope as her hyperactive young son, Sam, becomes increasingly unsettled by imaginary monsters. The situation is aggravated by the appearance of a book about a creature called the Babadook, who cannot be banished once he has entered the home. Refusing to be dismissed as more of Sam’s childish nonsense, the Babadook begins to creep into the life of these two vulnerable characters, until it becomes an all-consuming presence.
The performances from Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman are extremely powerful. Davis delivers a faultless portrayal of a single mother who evolves rapidly and alarmingly from frazzled to psychotic, whilst the fact that Wiseman is only 7 years old makes his rendition of an affection-starved, fatherless child all the more astonishing. The interaction between the two of them is so well executed that potentially saccharine moments are utterly convincing, balanced as they are with flashes of pure loathing and grotesque displays of bribery.
This is one of the few films that I have seen, along with Raging Bull and The Shining, that deals honestly with the kind of dark emotions associated with mental illness and trauma. It confronts the taboo of a mother who cannot let go of her dead husband and can no longer stand to be around her irritating child, who himself serves as a constant reminder of what she has lost; Kent wrings this situation of all its raw emotion. The relationship between mother and son is strained to breaking point by their confinement to a house that is steeped in reminders of the absent father/husband – a house that was in fact built specially for the purposes of the film, proof of Kent’s dedication to its aesthetics. Furniture seems to loom, walls and staircases climb endlessly; this, Kent explains, was to maintain the feeling of being a child, of being a small person in a large world. As a viewer, you feel like you should be constantly checking under the bed and in the wardrobe like Sam – you feel as vulnerable as him. This is an old school type of fear, the kind where the night ahead felt like it was going to last forever, and the only thing to do was to pull the covers right over your head and squeeze your eyes shut.
The film is in some respects an extended and developed version of Kent’s greyscale short film Monster, which plays out a similar narrative of a suburban single mother struggling with an energetic, overstimulated young son whose imagined monsters begin to materialise. Although The Babadook is not shot in black and white, a bruised colour palette was carefully adhered to in order for the film to maintain a sombre, twilit quality throughout. Objects in tones such as brown or red – except for the book itself, and blood – were meticulously removed from each frame, resulting in a permanent sense of being trapped in a nightmare. It is these kinds of careful details that make it such an intense experience.
The most refreshing thing about The Babadook is that it explores a relationship that is rarely spoken about in films, and indeed in society in general. Kent addresses a whole host of taboos surrounding loss, maternal relationships and postnatal depression: the fact that Amelia resents her child for living when her husband died; the fact that her son’s overactive imagination leads to sleepless nights, so she will resort to anything – including drugs – to get him to sleep; the fact that she still has sexual needs as a woman that she has to suppress as a mother. In short, she begins to resent having to prioritise her son’s needs over hers, a sentiment that is starkly anti-maternal and yet a reality for countless women. Amelia is a complicated character, just as a human being should be, and this makes the film more believable. It is this realistic dimension, along with the emotional heft of a narrative about a son who is desperate for his mother to love him, even when she is bent on killing him, that makes this film (at least in the mind of this self-confessed horror lightweight) even scarier. The Babadook is a highly recognisable monster: it grows stronger the more it is denied, just like grief, which draws strength from a refusal to acknowledge it.
With her debut film, Kent has mixed potent elements of traditional horror with those of a familiar narrative of grief, and arrived at an unfamiliar yet unsettlingly relatable result. She uses the most effective tool at her disposal – the imagination – to create a monster that is a manifestation of bereavement, depression, guilt, and all those other emotions that are at the core of everyday horror.