‘The Babadook’ is a truly effective horror film whose beautiful and twisted imagery – as well as complex and powerful explorations of grief and the bonds between a mother and her child – cut to the bone, managing to scare and move all at once. The film, which explores maternal affection, depression, grief – and a whole multitude of similar themes – is not just one of the best horror films of the past few years, but is also just simply one of the best films of the current year.
The film stars Essie Davis as Amelia, a widow living alone with her hyperactive son Sam (Noah Wiseman). Amelia loves her boy, but his presence is a constant reminder of the death of her husband – who died in a crash while driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth. The grief of the accident constantly lingers over them both. This is made all the worse for Amelia as Sam has become more of a burden as of late. Sam is beginning to more strongly deal with the absence of his father and expresses this in some unusual ways – including making up scary monsters and weapons to fight them with. Their strained relationship takes a dark turn when a mysterious pop-up book appears – the character in which is a spooky creature that awakens in Amelia fears and dark thoughts about her son that have long been hidden under the surface. She doesn’t know where the book came from or who this nightmarish Babadook is – but she can’t seem to escape it. The situation and Amelia’s mental state is exasperated by sleep deprivation, social pressures and growing depression as the anniversary of her husband’s death approaches. She is soon forced to confront a demon – both physical and psychological – that threatens to destroy her and Sam.
‘The Babadook’ very much reminded me of ‘Repulsion’ and ‘The Shining’ in its portrayal of a mental spiral into very dark places – as well as ‘The Orphanage’ in its handling of grief and loss. This is all packaged in a visually striking story – lots of blacks, greys and whites – with a creature that is sure to be an instant classic. What makes it all the better is the way in which it constantly subverts the expected in both genre tropes and what we are actually seeing on the screen. Is the Babadook real? Or is it simply a mental manifestation of the pain and grief that runs deeply through the story? Either way, the fears, doubts and terror it all elicits amount to more than just scares – it also moves with real and honest emotion. Take out the horror aspects and the film is still a moving portrait of a mother dealing with loss and the responsibility of mothering a troubled child. This is a shining example of the brilliance that the horror genre can achieve – how it can be emotionally affecting in ways no other genre can. Add to that a phenomenal performance by Essie Davis and the confident direction of Jennifer Kent and the result is a masterpiece of the genre – and easily one of the year’s best films.
*I discuss the ending in the comments. I say this to warn of spoilers below – as well as to continue my above analysis for those who have seen the film.*