Now Available from Waterstones – The Babadook

I feel that it is difficult to talk about this film without spoiling it. So to put it bluntly, you should go watch the Babadook. Like right now… 

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When was the last time you were truly shocked by a horror movie?

The majority of horror movies released these days are mass produced rubbish. They are made on low enough budgets to turn a modest profit from scared couples looking for a thrill on a Saturday night. It’s easy to get confused by the sheer wave of derivatation, your torture porns, your ‘found footage’ movies, your ‘based on actual events’ features, your remakes, your sequels, all following in the wake of the great pantheon of horror movies that exists at the very top of the medium as a reminder of how horror is really done. Cabin in the Woods did a good job at lampooning what the genre has become, with a secret bureaucratic department unleashing random supernatural entities into various different scenarios in attempts to appease a malevolent entity locked downstairs deep underground.

In many ways horror has lost it’s edge. I consider myself to be a seasoned movie buff, but I’ll usually skip all the horror movies that come out. I’ve seen all the great horror movies, Alien, The Shining, The Exorcist, George A. Romero’s Dead Trilogy, Event Horizon… I saw them as a right of passage when I was a teenager. For the majority of horror films that come out, I shrug and find myself asking what is the point? But every so often a movie comes out and gets you. It shakes you to the core and reminds you, just how powerful cinema can be in conveying that very primal sense of terror and lingering dread.

The Babadook is one of those films.

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Every frame is a painting.

Directed by Jennifer Kent and based off her own 2005 black and white short – Monster, The Babadook goes in the same kind of direction. Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother who has reached the end of her tether. Her husband died seven years ago in a car accident on the way to the delivery room on the eve of the birth of their son, Samuel. Now, seven years later she struggles in bringing up her son, a problem child with a vivid imagination who is convinced that there are monsters everywhere. He won’t sleep at night and is constantly making makeshift weapons to fight off these monsters. Eventually, Sam is suspended from school after hurting another child with one of these weapons and after a violent episode with another child at a birthday party, Amelia finds herself increasingly estranged from others. She has become the single mother that others tut about, and is ostracised accordingly.

After many sleepless nights, she reads him a bedtime story in an attempt to calm him down. She reads from a mysterious book called The Babadook, seemingly unaware where it came from. The book tells a pop up story about a bogeyman styled entity known only as the Babadook via a creepy children’s rhyme. The Babadook is said to taunt his victims sporadically before he consumes them entirely. As she reads the book she realises that the book isn’t suitable for children and promptly hides it away. But there is no escaping the Babadook, and soon mother and child are both being stalked by the malevolent entity that bears a striking similarity to the creature in the book.

You have the problem child and the bogeyman making things go bump in the night. These are all fundamentals of a horror movie you’ve seen so many times before, but the Babadook isn’t that movie. Indeed, the Babadook is terrifying, but not in the ways you’ll initially expect. This isn’t your standard bogeyman movie, though explaining where these monsters come from is perhaps the . The film opens with an abstract dream sequence depicting the fatal accident that has left Amelia a widow and single mother. She sits in a car with her husband, a bright white light comes for her, but before she is taken by it, she hears the calls of her son and promptly falls back to bed and awakens to a different kind of nightmare. Life as a mother with her son.

From the outset, the atmosphere is stifling and oppressive. Mother and child live in an old gothic house, a bastion for mother’s misery. The colourisation is kept very cold, depressed and puritanical, a palette comprised of nothing but blues, greys, blacks and whites. Any other colour would give the audience something to hold onto, some warmth, but director Jennifer Kent has you suspended in an atmosphere of acute discontentment.

Essie Davis as Amelia anchors the movie from start to finish. It is quite the performance of quiet yet explosive desperation. She appears haggard and worn, completely at her wit’s end and out of her depth where parenting is concerned. Life has failed her, and she isn’t coping well, but you sympathise with her. Even when you see that she isn’t as isolated as she thinks she is. Everybody recognises her mental deterioration, the next door neighbour, the dog and even her awful son.

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This guy…

Her son, Samuel, is a mewling and bawling entity from the get go. Amelia cannot get a good night’s sleep without him causing some kind of disturbance. Indeed, she can’t even masturbate without him somehow interrupting. He gets suspended from school, he pushes his cousin out of a treehouse on their joint birthday, he insists on making a range of makeshift weaponry to fend off the monsters he imagines, which often sees him breaking windows and injuring other children. From the beginning you’re with the mother. You straight up hate this child. Which takes some doing. Ahem…

No mother should hate their child of course, and this creates a fertile ground for horror even before the Babadook even comes into it.

Enter the Babadook. First, it’s through a seriously eerie children’s pop up book. “If it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook” quoth the book alongside Tim Burton esque imagery of the bogeyman entering their home at night. He is depicted as a hellish mix of the Child Catcher, Papa Lazarou and Freddy Kreuger. The Babadook is depicted as toying with his prey to the point of madness, in which he consumes his victims entirely, making them wish they were dead.

Eventually these storybook images begin manifesting them into real life, which is where the Babadook offers some of it’s best scares. You begin to dread the night time scenes, though there is more than enough to be afraid of in the daytime. The ways in which the Babadook manifests itself in real life is created with an old school approach, nothing but lighting, puppetry and some stop motion work.

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The Babadook. Available at Waterstones.

There are more than a fair few nods to where the Babadook comes from. The true story of what is happening is never directly spelled out. The film drip feeds you just enough information to allow you to draw your own conclusions. Suffice it to say, The Babadook, is the kind of film that gets better after repeat viewings. Perhaps most telling is in an early scene in which Samuel is attending a fancy dress party. He sports a familiar top hat and black cloak whilst wearing the manic smile yet to be revealed by the Babadook. Added to the fact that Amelia reveals to a crowd of mothers that she was once a talented children’s book illustrator, the dots begin to connect.

Of course, what the Babadook actually represents – who he actually is – is the delicious meat of the movie. As with most monsters, the monster often comes from the darkest parts of the human conscience. The little thoughts and feelings we deny in earnest yet still inescapably think about in private. In short The Babadook is about these irrational thoughts bleeding out and becoming rational in the mind of the victim. As a metaphor for mental illness, there aren’t many movies that handle it as effectively as The Babadook.

The Babadook manages to be terrifying, yet heartfelt at the same time. It comes from a very classical place in terms of horror, it understands the importance of atmosphere, subtlety and the emphasis of isolation. It understands that true horror is about facing the darkest things that exist in our consciousness. It possesses a simplicity to the storytelling that keeps us emotionally involved in the outcome whilst constantly suffering under the weight of anticipation of what will transpire when the monster is unleashed. Finally, it presents us with a monster that can never truly be beaten, only managed in private, always threatening to break out when the feeling gets the better of us. A true nemesis.

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Additional Viewing

Snowtown [2011]

Seeing Daniel Henshall appear in The Babadook as Amelia’s work colleague almost made my heart stop. The last time I saw Henshall was in Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown, a grizzly account of the Snowtown murders, in which the actor played the ring leader of the serial killings. I actually interviewed Kurzel and Henshall a while back when Snowtown was being released. Suffice it to say, if the Babadook is about estranged motherhood, Snowtown could be seen as being about misplaced fatherhood. The next movie from Justin Kurzel is an adaptation of Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as the lovely couple Mr & Mrs Macbeth. Which kind of says it all really. Fuck…

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Under The Skin [2014]

The Babadook is about parenting, Under The Skin could be seen as the prequel to those events, an investigation of sexuality and the act of human procreation from the perspective of an alien taking the form of Scarlett Johansson. Jonathan Glazer’s startlingly stripped back dosage of sci-fi horror is another movie that does creeping dread extremely well. Indeed, my spine tingles every time I remember the score.

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We Need To Talk About Kevin [2011]

After a double viewing of The Babadook and We Need To Talk About Kevin, why would you ever want to have children?

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