The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, Australia/Canada 2014). Written and directed by Jennifer Kent. Cinematography by Radek Ladczuk / Edited by Simon Njoo / Art direction by Karen Hannaford / Production design by Alex Holmes / Music by Jed Kurzel /Badabook book by Alexander Juhasz. Starring Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West / Production by Causeway Films.
Jennifer Kent’s brilliant debut The Babadook is a horror film par excellence, with the fascinating difference that the entire story can be experienced consistently and brilliantly at a purely psychological level. What other horror movie can claim also to tell such a wonderfully crafted tale of melancholy and grief?
Young housewife Amelia Vanek intersects with catastrophe when, on the day her son is about to be born and she is being driven to hospital by her husband Oskar, the car crashes and Oskar is killed. The new baby cannot know his father and grows up without getting another one. A birth has engendered a death. Engulfed by melancholia which she denies by imagining everything is going to be fine, Amelia has, in effect, died with Oskar. Because she hates her son Samuel for precipitating disaster, she copes with this forbidden thought by longing for some mystical unification of the family beyond the melancholic veil of death. All of Amelia’s unspeakable dismay, rage, powerlessness and hatred are, in the nature of things, taken on and expressed by her child (for there is no one else to feel them). Samuel becomes the monster baby and the terrible son—admittedly a long way from the extreme end of the spectrum exemplified by Kevin in Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011), but on it nonetheless.
We encounter Samuel close to his seventh birthday. He has solidified into a ‘difficult child’, currently debarred from school for his aggression towards other children, and vituperative towards—but clinging tightly to— his mother. He is disarmingly charming and yet toe-curlingly inappropriate and shocking in his utterances, blurting out the hurt of his father’s loss to complete strangers (an elderly kindly neighbour actually relishes the boy’s plain speaking, ‘just like his Dad’, hinting that there is a great truth needing to be laid bare). In carrying Amelia’s unspoken feelings, Samuel has an uncanny sense of her mountainous suppression of horror, even though he never knew his father and cannot outwardly comprehend her loss. He has become the self-proclaimed protector of his beautiful mother, his quest to shield her from herself. He has constructed ingenious weapons to ward off marauding monsters, and has booby-trapped the cellar to which Dad’s things have been banished. It is into the cellar he goes habitually and knows instinctively that the attack will be located in the paternal domain: ‘I’ll kill the monster when it comes’.
Over the years, Amelia, her hair a rats’ nest, has become increasingly washed-up and sleep-deprived, doubly oppressed as the result of her own flight from feeling and through the clinging ‘abnormality’ of Samuel, his confrontation of all around him and her inability to control him (The creation of monstrous children presupposes some fundamental resistance to the acknowledgement of the parent’s own suppressed feelings: like Cassandra, the child is invariably the bearer of bad news.) Presumably sexually abstinent but needy for nearly seven years, Amelia shuns the company of men. Her allies have boiled down to the sympathetic neighbour and her sister Claire, with whom relations are anyway near breaking point. Due to Amelia’s resistance and Claire’s reticence, the two sisters have never talked about the death of Oskar (nor will Amelia open up to Claire’s well-meaning friends). They have entered into a pact whereby Samuel celebrates his birthday on the same day as that of his cousin Ruby, whose birthday is close to his own, thereby avoiding the unacceptable truth of the abhorred anniversary. As a result, Samuel has never had a proper birthday. As Ruby’s party approaches, Claire has had enough of the monster child and tells Amelia that the joint celebrations are over: Samuel will be a mere guest at Ruby’s party and so be deprived of a his own birthday. In Samuel’s confused mind, Mum is someone to be protected but also to blamed: ‘She won’t let me have a birthday, and won’t let me have a Dad!’ At the party, Ruby taunts Samuel with the double-whammy of his inheritance: your Dad died because he didn’t want you, and your Mum doesn’t want you either. Samuel pushes Ruby out of the tree house they are in, breaking her nose through the fall.
Following the inevitable break with Claire, Amelia is now truly alone, with nothing to cushion her against the unavoidable, terrifying need to give Samuel his very first birthday party. She begins to experience alarming intimations of the reality she has been running from for years, uncannily, a seven-year itch (or, more accurately, something nagging and painful: Amelia is constantly nursing a bad tooth, a disability which is only relieved through an agonising and yet liberating transformation). For Amelia, things start to go downhill fast, with Samuel off school, her job abandoned, her sleeplessness now devastating.
Samuel shows Amelia a book of which she has no knowledge depicting a sinister black-clad man called the Babadook, and demands that she read it to him. The unnerving message of the Babadook is ‘Let me in’. Meanwhile, Samuel has constructed a Dad of his own in the cellar using Oskar’s clothes, and is becoming increasingly violent in his reactions to Mum, projecting responsibility for distressing incidents (glass in soup, a disfigured marriage photo) onto the Babadook. Amelia catches increasing glimpses of the Babadook and, convinced that the creature is stalking her, tears up the book and appeals to the police, only to be rejected further (the distress of not being believed). Fuelled by a constant diet of often lurid snippets of movies on TV (Amelia herself is the zombie she sees rising from old horror films), she surrenders to her exhaustion and self-punishing guilt and, beset by hallucinations and hysteria, finds the book mysteriously put together again and returned to her, the message from the Babadook the ominous core of the melancholic quandary:
The more you deny me, the stronger I get
You start to change when I get in
The Babadook gnawing right under your skin
Come to see what’s underneath.
The content of the book has been altered to reveal the killing of the family dog Bugsy, the murder of Samuel, and Amelia’s own suicide. As the birthday falls upon Amelia and Samuel, the Babadook, the Big Other which, in horror films, is always breathing up close and in our face, enters Amelia’s mouth and gets inside.
Samuel knows the lair of the Babadook is in the cellar and it is to the cellar that Amelia is ineluctably drawn, intent on restoring the family through the outcome of the melancholic dream: the reuniting with the deceased by uttering the unutterable—that she wished that Samuel had died instead of Oskar. Through a visionary encounter, Amelia realises she must fulfil the wishes of the Babadook and bring the boy into the cellar to achieve a wholeness beyond the grave. Previously, Samuel has promised to protect Mum if she will protect him, and so he does, in a cliff-hanging denouement. He rides the storm and enables his mother to confront the Babadook and, imperiously, order it out of her life. The monster is tamed and light shines at last as melancholy and rage are consumed and snuffed out. The black bile in Amelia spills out as she hovers between murder, death and reality, the first appearance of a healthy grief nullifying Samuel’s need to carry the burden of—and act out—the unwanted emotions bequeathed to him by Mum.
Samuel gets his first true birthday party and he and Mum manage the Babadook, which still lives in the cellar, but is now tamed, appeased by offerings of garden worms and grubs. Melancholy has been transformed into a resigned and manageable grief, and Amelia is able to visit her rage safely, although some days will be easier than others. In allowing herself to grieve, Amelia can now show compassion to the Babadook. Mother and son enjoy one of Samuel’s lovely magic tricks, the conjuring up of a peaceable white dove (Samuel’s motto: “All is not what it seems”), and the little boy’s dancing joy at his trick sets the seal on the happiness of the family, found for the first time through a simple but determined plea of mother and son to protect one another, and to face and accept grief and not be consumed by it. The ending of the film is refreshingly unconventional since, unlike the device in Michel Gondry’s The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, (2004) which banishes all bad thoughts, Amelia and Samuel will have to live peaceably with the Babadook for the rest of their lives: there is no neat dramatic clinching. In this respect most of all, The Babadook is therapeutically spot on, as melancholia subsides and a healing grief sets in.
A pretty good story, one may say, about the corrosiveness of melancholy and its better-late-than-never transformation: grief resolves unresolved melancholy. Films about grief are common enough and a few are outstanding: one thinks of the supreme achievement of Krysztof Kieslowski’s Colours trilogy (1993-4), and Nanni Moretti’s The Son’s Room (2001) and Jonathan Glazer’s Birth (2004), to draw three goodies out of the hat. But wait a minute, The Babadook is supposed to be a horror film. And horror film it certainly is, with the fascinating difference, which it shares with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Firewalk With Me (1992), that the entire story can be experienced consistently and brilliantly at a purely psychological level. Yet the film works well as a horror story and we are at liberty, if we wish, to pass over plumbing the psychological depths: the Babadook is a damn’ good monster which scares the hell out of us. (One thinks, too, of Jonathan Glazer’s Birth, in which, despite all the clues which tell us it is a hoax, we are nevertheless very keen to buy into a supernatural story.) On the other hand, the film demands understanding and respect for its psychological consistency and power.
Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook is a brilliant debut, showing an impressive grasp of Gothic-horror movie constructs, centred on the legendary horror house (Polanski’s Repulsion , Lynch’s ill-lit houses of corruption, Amityville), giallo extremity, evocative coloration and sound, and the crystallization, from a children’s book, of a superb monster, with unmistakable echoes of Freddie Krueger’s finger-claws and with screaming, tooth-filled mouths straight out of early Francis Bacon paintings. Created by the American illustrator Alexander Juhasz, the Babadook’s back hat and overcoat is an uncanny and prescient echo of the hat, suit and shoes belonging to his father that Samuel has arranged against the cellar wall. Like all the best horrors—the creature in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), Killer Bob in Firewalk With Me—the Babadook is something we see only partially, and is all the more terrifying for it, in its faintly limned utter blackness, whether crawling over the ceiling or the car, enough of it to give us exquisite shivers. This is a truly frightening film, the power of the Babadook working through its blackness, the intimation of horrible shapes, and its immense, coiled power—so that we wonder how Amelia can possibly oppose it.
Credit for The Babadook must extend beyond the writer-director Jennifer Kent and her actors to her production team, a wonderful union of cinematography (Radek Ludczuk), art direction (Karen Hannaford), music (Jed Kurzel) and production design (Alex Holmes), the Babadook book design by Alexander Juhasz bequeathing us the monster. The horror house is the star, conceived in an all-enveloping naturally achieved tonal scheme of unremitting gunsmoke-blue and grey (Kent had wanted to use black-and-white film to aid contrast). Intertwined with the lives of its inhabitants, the commodious frame building has a life of its own, from oozing cockroach phantasmagoria, psycho-kinesis, a booby-trapped cellar, flashing knives and the apparent inevitability of blood-letting, to a great scream, seemingly bigger than any person—and a terrified boy. This boy, however, is percipient and resourceful: Samuel knows deep down that Mum needs protecting from herself, and has the guts to bring it off in a bravura display of plotting and anticipation—again, another construct, that of the deliverance from horror: hats off to the child who prevails and saves, who is not engulfed by the madness which besieges him.
Essie Davis as Amelia cannot be praised enough, her gradual change from bemused housewife and care-home worker to raging banshee surely the most remarkable horror transformation in film for a long time. Noah Wiseman as Samuel has a remarkable repertoire of emotional states, from tantrums and vituperation, through a tender, clinging dependency and protectionism, to the gleeful energy in setting the monster traps and the exuberance of his magic tricks. The supporting cast is faultless too, from the sympathetic Parkinsonian neighbour (Barbara West) to the array of relatives, teachers, policemen, social workers and colleagues and well as a wonderfully harassed doctor, all of whom are convincingly repelled by Amelia’s imposed stoicism and her monster son. What other horror movie can claim also to tell such a wonderfully crafted tale of melancholy and grief?
This review is the result of a discussion between my wife Linda and me on the psychological underpinning of The Babadook, a grief story so well crafted that it deserves our understanding. I would also like to thank my son Alasdair who put me onto the psychological riches of this outstanding debut film . Sand commented on the unconventionality of its ending. See https://foec.wordpress.com [Film of Every Colour].
For insight into the difference between grief and melancholy, I am indebted to Darian Leader’s The New Black [Mourning, Melancholia and Depression], Hamish Hamilton, London (2008).