Is there a more difficult challenge in movies than to make a truly unsettling horror film? Based solely on the handful of flicks designed to scare that have actually left me legitimately creeped and/or freaked out, I can't think of one. Well I now count The Babadook, a little-seen, little Australian horror film written and directed by Jennifer Kent, as one of the precious few.
I am not certain that makes it a masterpiece of the genre. Simply overcoming the general disposability of most other horror films -- finding a place in my crowded brain and sticking there -- is achievement enough.
Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman star as a single mother, Amelia, and her emotionally disturbed son Sam, respectively. He was born the day his father was killed, as he and Amelia were on their way to the hospital for his delivery. That string of events has echoed through the years since -- the joy of childbirth totally negated by the loss of a spouse, the economic, spiritual and emotional devastation complete.
Davis is the perfect visage of a broken woman trying to hold everything together. She lost her husband in that car accident, but her professional ambition also seems to have been extinguished. Once a writer of children's books, she now spends her working hours bedecked in pink and caring for the elderly in a nursing home. Whatever she makes goes toward keeping her and Sam in a meager, dingy, navy blue house and bouncing him from one school to the next as his behavioral issues eventually require him to move along to the next one.
Sam's violent outbursts and his obsession with crafting weapons -- all directed toward a vague supernatural threat to him and his mother -- seem like salt in the wounds -- one last bit of spirit-breaking misfortune lain at the feet of a woman who can not possibly shoulder all these burdens without suffering a breakdown of her own.
For his part, Sam is monstrous in his own way. He pairs a fascination with all manner of homemade weaponry and booby traps with loud, extended screaming fits. He claims to be protective of his mother, but even if true it’s hard to tolerate, even as a relatively disinterested party watching this all play out on screen. He’s difficult enough that you could almost understand Amelia snapping without the appearance of the titular creature, which is probably exactly what Kent wanted.
Show up Mister Babadook does, though, conjured when Amelia makes the ghastly mistake of reading him a thick, red-covered children’s book of that very name. The book’s illustrations are scrawled in charcoal — its foreboding words a chilling match to the primitive imagery that almost looks like it could have been found among prehistoric cave drawings. Most frightening of all: it is unfinished, suggesting that once Amelia and Sam allow the Babadook in to their house, they will have a large part to play in its conclusion.
Amelia tears the book up then burns it on the barbie, but soon after it appears on their doorstep, reassembled and with more of its pages filled out in grisly detail. That hocus pocus sends her over the edge. With the Babadook harassing her and Sam more and more, Amelia stops sleeping, and, as if following a prophecy from the book, she begins to break. All of a sudden, she is the menacing one in the house — the one lashing out aggressively and hurtfully at her son. Sam, meanwhile, is being forced to take sedatives, a development that puts his mother in even more danger. He is, after all, the only one who seems to understand what the Babadook is up to as it torments them. His obnoxious, annoying yelling and homemade weapons become suddenly endearing as his mother comes apart at the seams.
The Babadook is such an effective film because of this dynamic. It plumbs the depths of a mother-son relationship that has been forever altered by the tragic circumstances under which the son was brought in to the world. Kent foists empathy for both upon us, first by allowing us to understand Amelia’s struggle and then doing the same for Sam. The horror itself is relatively standard stuff — the creepy kid seeing things no one else does, the mother driven insane then ultimately possessed by a supernatural being — although the ending is mind-bending and memorable.
The fully drawn characters are what separates this film, in this genre at least. You spend half the film bathing in the bittersweet heartbreak Amelia is feeling, almost coming to despise her son. You spend the other half rooting for Sam; he’s an underdog trying to protect what little he has in the world, after all. The true horror, as it so often does in the classics of this genre, comes from something slowly revealed that you could in fact see all along.