Horror has been frequently tapped into to extrapolate topical sociopolitical observations and confident filmmakers, be it Jordan Peele or Jayro Bustamante, have mined the genre to speak to contemporary anxieties around gender, class and race. This is a happy shift away from the cheap, done-to-death jump scare tropes and white-knuckle thrills we have come to associate with the genre and that have somehow turned the genre into a disreputable, disgraceful narrative space undeserving of contention on actual merit of its artistry. Accusations of overboard acting, lazy scripting, counting on big scares to satisfy the viewer’s appetites, and an emotional emptiness constantly afflict the genre. Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s 2014 debut feature The Babadook defiantly swerves off and neatly destroys all these easily reliable genre tricks in the originality of its thoughtful appraisal of the most essential human emotional needs and wants.
Kent largely deals in the fraught mental spaces of the protagonist, Amelia, who works as an aide at a nursing facility for the elderly, and is mother to the seven-year old Samuel. She lost her husband in a car accident while he was driving her to the hospital for her childbirth. Samuel displays distressing behavioral problems; his distinct recalcitrance alienates him from having any friend or confidante. He has bouts of aggression, he attacks his classmates with pointy household stuff and some of his unsavoury inclinations have led to his cousin refusing to be in his presence. Most people hesitate to associate with him and his anti-social tendencies keep everyone at bay. Amelia discerns the acute discomfort her son’s presence engenders in people, and she guards him combatively from the brunt of dismissal and indifference, while subjecting him to her own constantly see-sawing moods. Amelia is trapped in a state of denial: the denial of really deeply missing her husband’s touch and love, and that she has learnt how to live in his absence. The truth of her predicament is something she can’t come to terms with. She too dissociates from everyone around her. She stays cooped up in her house and does not engage in any social mingling, except when at her workplace. The loss and ache gnaw at her, and she finds herself hurling all her spite and resentment at her son for his birth was so intimately tied to her husband’s death. Samuel’s peculiarities only compound her indigence. This leads to a widening emotional distance between the two, as both mother and son struggle desperately and failingly to comprehend and adequately nurture each other.
This knotty mother-son relationship forms the heart of the film. The horror subset is almost a tertiary angle which, even if excised from the narrative, wouldn’t diminish the imaginative strength and power of the film. Sam has a Mister Babadook book, comprising seemingly harmless old wives’ tales of a monster who comes in and snatches people away from their houses. Sam is convinced that the monster exists and that he can see him wandering around, and of course Amelie shrugs it off until it slowly catalyzes a tremendous, relentless meltdown, a series of paroxysms winding into the ultimate cesspool of panic, paranoia and anxiety attacks.
The Babadook is a rare, true-blue horror original because within a monster feature, Kent interweaves a profound understanding of grief with a compassionate, finely empathetic lens on motherhood. Amelia does things to her son which would be severely judged by social norms. When she realizes she has had enough of Sam’s incessantly trying activities, she administers tranquilizers to shut him up. As she spells it out herself, all she wants is a good, undisturbed sleep. The beauty and bravery of the film is its devastatingly honest, heartfelt representation of the grueling weight and the emotionally taxing nature of motherhood. The exhaustion is palpable in her frame and demeanour. Her eyes are sunken, and Essie Davis’s portrayal of a woman gradually going off the charts and descending into unmanageable hysteria helps to define her condition with precise physical nuances. This might strike the unsuspecting viewer as just another commonplace performance of careening mental instability, but look closer and you will notice Davis imbuing Amelia with a raw, unflinching pathos and an almost disconcerting level of realism in the manner in which she rubs her sleep-deprived eyes or her response to her world falling apart and the accompanying loss of control. At the center of the film is the bottomless horror and fear of being stripped of the elemental human connection. Kent investigates what the lack of love, a healthy co-dependent relationship built on equal degrees of mutual concern, and finally the inability to grapple with and process the magnitude of a beloved person’s loss can do to our well-being, both physical and mental. The build-up to the special effects of the monster, whose outline of talons and scarecrow-like features instantly evoke memories of Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, plays out in measured, unhurried scenes with little shock value.
The emotional undertow of The Babadook is so potent and well-realized that it’s also uniquely moving, without the crutch of maudlin scenes. The monster gravitates to people devoid of love, it attracts and feeds off them and their energies and their sanity. Any kind of stasis in communication between beings is what motivates the monster. Kent chooses the shades of grey and black to visualise the film in, conveying the sense of the bleakness and misery that pervades the house. Drawing on early cinema as a nice transit point that enmeshes effortlessly with Amelie’s spirals, Kent relies on old-fashioned, sturdy practical effects, very basic in essence, to channel the protagonist’s internal pushbacks to her unhinged circumstances. Kent seems to reaffirm the ferocity of maternal love and how it can steamroll over the toughest odds, without any attempt to valourise or idealise it. Thus, The Babadook works brilliantly on account of the smart reworking of the infamous mother’s guilt, arm-twisting it into a subtle, subdued exploration of the price of motherhood, presented along with mythic but timeless primal fears of abandonment, death and the privation of love.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.