Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent made quite a splash with her debut film “The Babadook” (2014). Not only did this film become an early poster child in the trend toward “elevated horror” – a term which may always have been more about non-horror fans finally starting to look at horror films seriously than about some huge shift in the genre itself – but the triumphant arrival of Kent also signaled a major shift in the genre’s sense of itself by proving that brilliant horror films could written and directed by women. Studios could no longer pretend that women had no interest in horror. This movie helped to open those floodgates.
On its surface, “The Babadook” presents the story of a widow struggling with the behavioral issues of her six-year-old son. The mother, Amelia used to be a writer of articles and what she dismissively calls “kids’ stuff” but since the death of her husband she has worked as a nurse at a retirement home. Her son, Samuel is a sweet, smart boy, but he’s both emotionally troubled and literally trouble for teachers and the other children. He’s terrified of monsters and constantly inventing weapons and traps to protect himself and his mother, but this only leads to more problems. The soothing bedtime books she reads him don’t seem to help either.
As a result, Amelia finds herself as a fulltime caregiver both at work and at home, with no time or energy for herself. She’s overwhelmed, exhausted, and depressingly lonely. Essie Davis who plays Amelia does a great job in the first part of evoking viewers’ compassion for a mother at the end of her tether. Even if we also feel some sympathy for the son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), his frequent tantrums and thorough “weirdness” really do make him seem pretty unbearable, even monstrous at times. One of the movie’s most comically tragic moments comes when her son, who always has trouble sleeping, suddenly walks in her while she’s masturbating in bed. Poor Amelia. She makes us start to understand why sometimes parents must honestly hate their kids even if they love them.
Things in the film take a turn for the worse when Samuel finds a strange book on his shelf and requests that Amelia read it to him before bed. Bound entirely in red with a block-lettered title, “Mister Babadook” is not a book that Amelia has seen before. She’s not sure where it could have come from, but she gamely agrees to read it to her son. It’s a German Expressionist looking pop-up book with a character in a top hat who has sharp teeth and curled claws for hands. The story is told in singsong rhymes that turn sinister enough that Amelia snaps the book shut and refuses to read any more of it to Samuel. Predictably, this prompts another tantrum from the boy.
But Amelia is surely right to get rid of the book. It’s just going to make her son’s fear of monsters worse. But once “The Babadook” knocks on your door, he’s not so easy to get out of your house.
I don’t want to give any more away before you watch the movie for yourself, but it’s worth noting that “The Babadook” has been compared to “The Shining” (1980), Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel.
As you ponder what this one all means, I’d encourage you to think metaphorically as we have discussed with the previous films. Yes, we have the horrific plot turns and violent scenes in the film, but there’s much more going on emotionally and psychologically than meets the eye.