The Babadook (dir. Jennifer Kent, 2014) – Single mother Amelia struggles to raise her son, as his constant fear of a book’s monster begins to take its toll.
The Babadook peers into the dark corners of motherhood in the clever and unnerving guise of a literal demon.
Seven years after her husband’s death, single mother Amelia (Essie Davis) is struggling to cope as her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) shows increasing behavioural issues. Things worsen when a mysterious storybook surfaces on their shelf, its menacing words provoking Samuel to react in fear and violence.
Isolation amplifies unease in the claustrophobic nightmare that threatens the vulnerable pair. What began as a child’s figment of imagination, seemingly materialises into the palpable presence of a demonic incarnate.
Homed in a genuinely creepy (and very quotable) pop-up book, The Babadook chills as its rhymes grow more vicious with each page turned. The book’s heightening peril runs in parallels with the aggravating emotional strain on Amelia as she finds it harder to discipline her son.
Unconditional love for a child is not always easy, and this is an intimate study into a world not often seen. Juxtaposing the usual depiction of joy that comes with motherhood, director Jennifer Kent presents a daring perspective of a conflicted mother finding it impossible to love her own child. She delves into the darker corners of maternity, where condemnation for a wayward child is socially inadmissible and hence destructive to the parenting figure.
Thematically, another chilling character study comes to mind. In Lynne Ramsay’s masterful We Need to Talk About Kevin, a mother tries to care for her sociopathic son over the years but her patience soon thins. Near madness, she becomes more resentful with the inability to understand her child.
The Babadook is a sufficiently different take, blending more horror elements in its psychological drama. Memorable in its clever stand-out metaphor, the idea spawns from Kent’s very own black-and-white short film Monster, which in turn saw its respectable influences in classics like Vampyr that rely on atmospheric horror as opposed to jump scares.
Choosing a muted monochrome palette over the original’s grayscale, the strokes remains expressive through expert cinematography. The result is a distinctive picture that is bound to provoke as much terror as thought. In the words of The Exorcist director William Friedkin, “It will scare the hell out of you as it did me.”
Seven-year-old Noah Wiseman’s intensity unsettles in a difficult role, with slight echoes of a young Danny Lloyd in The Shining. Essie Davis is particularly arresting to watch with her raw emotions, as her character’s loss segues into desperation amid a hopeful search for strength. A natural air of amiability made her the perfect casting choice, as she managed to remain sympathetic, even at her worst choices.
While ostensibly made with the purpose to terrify, The Babadook is much more than a mythical creature from the pages. By painting a haunting figure upon a worn family picture, Jennifer Kent’s unique film adeptly renders invisible monsters of grief, guilt and dark secrets into a visible Boogeyman – its manifestation, its eventual expulsion, then an inescapable, lingering presence.