It’s a rare film that can balance the supernatural and the psychotic. It requires walking the razor’s edge of taut surrealism without toppling into ridiculousness or incoherency. A few films have succeeded – Repulsion, The Innocents, The Shining, Eraserhead. And now, The Babadook. A feature length adaptation of Aussie director Jennifer Kent’s 2005 short Monster, The Babadook extends its sharp nails from picture book nightmares into the forbidden recesses of human nature.
What is it like to hate your own child? A thoroughly unpleasant experience, if this film is anything to go by. Essie Davis plays Amelia, who was left a widow by a car accident as she gave birth to her now six year-old son Sam (Noah Wiseman), and her feelings for her disobedient, wildly imaginative son are polluted by his inextricable, intrinsic link to her husband’s death. Kent evokes Cronenbergian revulsion intensely in an early scene, Sam’s nocturnal embrace of his mother depicted as the clutches of some clammy ghoul: teeth grinding and sallow, moonlit skin. Amelia represses her unspeakable feelings towards Sam, but when he’s withdrawn from school and becomes convinced that a creature called “the babadook” is haunting their house, things take a turn for the worse.
The Babadook inhabits the familiar space of modern horror: an ancient two-story house with creaking floorboards and monochromatic, pallid walls. The colour scheme is mostly desaturated and ashen, with clever use of bold colours – navy is Sam’s colour, faded pink Amelia’s, and arterial red the province of the Babadook. The film’s effects – achieved entirely in camera – are redolent of shaky silent films rather than the cheap CGI that defines low-budget horror (the Babadook’s design was inspired by stills from the lost silent film London After Midnight, according to Kent).
Kent’s innovations go beyond a handmade, creepy adaptation of horror tropes. The Babadook lurks in the shadows, murky pools of anxiety, disgust and shuddering dread. This is a film less interested in jolting you out of your seat with a jump scare or a dark figure skulking in the margins of a frame; the effectiveness of the film instead lies with its lack of release, the way it maintains a deeply discomfiting atmosphere of wrongness throughout.
I mentioned The Shining before, and while The Babadook doesn’t quite live up to Kubrick’s modern horror masterpiece, it feels like a spiritual cousin to that film; a reinterpretation where the Overlook is smaller and darker, where the family is confined by society and personal anxiety rather than deep snow, and where Wendy and Jack’s characters are one and the same. That last point is critical – where The Shining was, in part, a deconstruction of masculinity, Kent’s film is deeply embedded in a female perspective: apprehension over aging, loneliness (existential and physical) and the challenges of motherhood.
The observation that a film is too long is a common (and easy) complaint to make; it’s true here, but not because it drags, but simply because it ends with an extraneous coda that could’ve easily been removed entirely. Aside from this blemish, The Babadook is a stunning debut: thematically coherent, defined by precise, affective direction and powerful central performances. You can’t get rid of The Babadook.