Modern Horror Classic: The Babadook

 Note: I don't think there is enough praise I can throw at The Babadook.  This Australian horror written and directed by Jennifer Kent is one of the most thoughtful horror films I have ever seen.  Oh, and it's also one of the most terrifying as well.  I think by now I have watched it five times, and each viewing both has me impressed with the message as well as being creeped out on the edge of my seat.  If you are a fan of horror films and have not seen this movie, stop reading and check it out.

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Chances are that you may have never heard of this movie, and, if that's the case, you really need to do yourself a favour and view The Babadook.  This Australian film, written and directed by debuting filmmaker Jennifer Kent, made most of its money in the foreign film scene, grossing just shy of $1 million in North America.  However, just because people didn't flock out to see it doesn't mean that this movie isn't an undeniable horror classic.  I would easily put it in the top ten horrors from the last decade, and if someone proclaimed that it was a top ten horror movie of all time, they would be justified in saying so.  Heck, if I heard a person say this is actually the best horror movie ever made, I don't know how I would be able to go about arguing against that. 

Watching it yesterday for the fourth time, it does not diminish at all.  It is just as impactful in what Jennifer Kent is saying about human nature, and the emotional impact of the story hits just as heavy.  The story is about a widowed mother, Amelia (Essie Davis), trying to take care of her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who constantly acts out.  The toll that her son's behaviour takes on Amelia is devastating, with her emotional fragility bringing her close to collapse.  One night Samuel brings his mother a bedtime book to read.  It's cover is simple, red with the words 'The Babadook' and a back silhouette of a creepy being.  The book begins curious enough, but then turns from lightly disturbing to flat out dark.

Samuel, who has always believed there are monsters in the house, now cannot stop talking about The Babadook, which constantly occupies his mind and affects his behaviour.  It is just another incident that Amelia has to deal with, and, by this point, there is just no more energy to handle it properly.  Not only that, but soon enough she comes to have her own encounters with The Babadook.  From there, reality distorts itself, and her small family is in jeopardy.

The beauty of this script from Kent is the fact that the monster is merely symbolic.  The Babadook isn't just a horror, but an allegory for what happens when we don't deal with grief and loss.  Amelia has not been able to let go and move on from the death of her husband seven years prior, and the collapse of her family and personal mental health is solely because of her intense suffering.  The monster can only be overcome when she reclaims her life, choosing to care for her son in the present instead of living emotionally in the past.  Kent makes an interesting point here in that coming to this point doesn't vanquish The Babadook.  Those things, she seems to say, will never leave us, and that is okay.  Dealing with grief doesn't mean forgetting, but rather keeping that monster close by and managing it.

The stresses of Amelia are heartbreaking, and Kent makes sure to portray that there is no aspect of her life that she has all to herself.  Everything is invaded either by The Babadook or her son.  The relationship with her son seems to be a bit hyperbolic to illustrate that Samuel's health and development is directly connected to how Amelia interacts with the past and the loss of her husband who died while driving her to the hospital when she was giving birth to Samuel.  In a way, she hates Samuel because of this.  Even with that baggage, Kent continually shows us that Amelia knows her duty to her son and that she does want to properly love him.

This is a weighty script, with many different aspects that could be explored for their significance.  One technique used by Kent is to use a grey filter throughout, making life appear without vibrance and hope.  That visual also makes what we see in the film line up with the black and white pages of The Babadook book.  What is interesting is that she never reveals true colours, even after the resolution at the end, perhaps another way of stating that the past will always still be with us.

With all of its interesting complexities, I need to draw attention to something about this film that you need to know.  Yes, it's dramatic, and hopefully what I have written about gets some interest flowing. However, this is still a horror movie, and it is absolutely terrifying.  Jennifer Kent wraps her message up in a vessel that both unnerves and scares the audience, using pacing techniques, environment, atmosphere, visuals, and audio to rattle the viewer.  I have seen countless horror films and can see a scare coming a mile away.  Not only was I frightened when I first saw it three and a half years ago, but I was still affected on my fourth viewing.  That is something special.  To be able to have that continued impact on a repeat viewer almost never happens.

Quality horror films are becoming more plentiful these days, and I believe a lot of that success is coming off of the back of movies like this.  Well, there really aren't other movies like this.  Kent uses all of the techniques of a horror in a way that doesn't feel redundant, and applies elements only when needed.  There isn't anything superfluous in the entire movie.  For that reason, it is a modern work of art.  When you throw in the symbolism of what the monster represents and the journey that the protagonist must undertake you have a film that sticks with everyone who encounters it.  The Babadook, I believe, has opened the door for horrors to once again focus on themes.  You may not have heard about it, but this is a timeless work that is one of the very best that cinema has ever seen.

Rating - 4 out of 4 stars