Andrew Serong

A hobby blog. Expect cats.

The Babadook (2014)

May 30, 2014

Jennifer Kent’s dark fairy-tale horror film The Babadook (2014) deserves every bit of hype since its premiere at Sundance. It usually takes a lot of effort for me to get into an Australian film. Even good Aussie films require a certain degree of interpretation: that is, maybe it’s not really my kind of film, but I can appreciate what’s going on.

The Babadook (2014) written and directed by Jennifer Kent

The Babadook is one of those rare films that is just absolutely the kind of film that I want to go see. Kent handpicked a unique team to craft an exquisitely wrought tale about coming to terms with trauma, and the grip that the (in this case literal) spectre of the past can have over you. Through the opening act, we get to know Amelia (Essie Davis), still grieving for the loss of Oskar, her son’s father, who died on the way to the hospital when she gave birth to Samuel, now 6 years old. Samuel is a loner and a little messed up, and when he is suspended after bringing a homemade dart gun to school, Amelia’s world crumbles in on itself. Through all this, Amelia worries for her son’s sanity as he is terrified of an invisible monster, The Babadook, that he is convinced is haunting their lives. Samuel shows Amelia a picture story book that he found in their home about Mister Babadook. It’s a macabre little book about a monster that grows stronger the longer you ignore it.


By the time The Babadook comes to haunt Amelia, she is already at wit's end, overwhelmed with insomnia and mired in her past.

Many interviews with Kent talk about the bold subject of a mother who does not love her child, but to me I got the very real sense that Amelia loves her son dearly. It’s her circumstances that end up making it impossible. In fact, if anything, her problem is that she has spent every minute of her life giving all of her energy to other people (as we see in her day job at a nursing home). Ultimately, this leads to her inner life being reduced to a small and bitter world.

But the film is far from being a gritty, realistic domestic drama. Rather the film is elaborately designed in gloriously rich, dark, subdued tones of clean blue, grey, and green. Every shot has been lovingly crafted and imbued with the dark mystery of Amelia’s own demons. The Babadook himself is not the stock standard ‘goth rocker’ villain we see in movies like Sinister or Insidious, but rather something that harks back to German expressionism and to the work of Georges Méliès, whose work appears in the film when Amelia watches late night television, and in her son’s love for magic and invention.

The 'goth rocker' villain look from Sinister (2012)
The silhouetted expressionistic picture storybook look for Mister Babadook.
What I really loved about this film is how directly Kent takes us on a fairy-tale-like journey through coming to terms with trauma. She doesn’t let the film sink into stock horror tropes, or get stuck in the melodrama of Amelia’s life, but rather brings us to the point where we are right there in Amelia’s world as she comes to terms with the ghosts of her past, in an incredibly imaginative way. Essie Davis deserves all accolades that arise out of her role in this, but it’s the boy Samuel, played by Noah Wiseman, who really made this film for me.

“I’ll wager with you, I'll make you a bet. The more you deny, the stronger I get.”

Amelia’s life is a horror film, but you get the sense that for Samuel, he thinks he’s in a Spielberg fantasy. In many ways he is the hero of the flick, and ultimately it’s the story of a mother and son, irredeemably distant at the outset, and how they find their way back to each other.

A simple Google search for Babadook brings up countless articles from this year’s Sundance. It seems the film press have responded the way most horror fans have: this film is such a breath of fresh air. Its formal composition, trust of its lead actors to drive the story, lo-fi in-camera cinematic effects, and exquisite production design, music and sound earn this film a very special and unique place. I love that Kent took the time to hire just the right artist to design the book (Alex Juhasz), find just the right cinematographer (Radoslaw Ladczuk) and production designer (Alex Holmes) to make a film that is uniquely its own. It’s also great to see how they managed to engage Kickstarter backers to bolster the art department.

Sure, it exists in a framework of domestic horror films such as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) before it. It also reminded me a bit of Poltergeist (1982), and certainly the child-like suburban worlds of Spielberg’s films, with the lovingly crafted heightened reality of Tim Burton and the otherworldliness of David Lynch. But whatever the inspirations, it’s clear that Jennifer Kent is her own voice and dedicated to good, clear, and bold storytelling that is so much more than the sum of its genre parts.

I can’t wait to see what she does next.

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