The Past Is Present
By Michael Koresky
Dir. Jennifer Kent, Australia, IFC Films
Itâ€™s unclear at this point if Australian director Jennifer Kent wants to continue making horror films, but judging by her terrifying and moving debut feature, The Babadook, itâ€™s obvious that horror needs her. In what has been a fairly moribund year for the genre, Kentâ€™s film stands out sharply in the dark, teeth and fingernails gleaming. As with all the great supernatural films of this genre, the horror doesnâ€™t exist as an entity outside of its human characters, but as a metaphorical way in to a deeper understanding of them. Rosemaryâ€™s Baby isnâ€™t about the ins and outs of satanic impregnation, but the ways in which womenâ€™s bodies are socially co-opted. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is less concerned with the details of a mysterious alien force that wants to colonize our planet than the drive toward social conformity it represents. And does the Candyman urban legend make sense as anything other than a snarling manifestation of repressed racial genocide and those it affects generations down the line? The Babadook takes the form of a somewhat conventional bogeyman story, but it has much more on its mind. With this frightening, seemingly simple story of a childrenâ€™s book monster come to fearsome life, Kent burrows into the mindscape of two peopleâ€”a mother and sonâ€”contending with delayed post-trauma; itâ€™s an intelligently conceived and surprisingly poignant character study that never sacrifices any of its scares as it grasps for drama.
To successfully plumb the depths while also preserving mainline high tension throughout, Kentâ€™s film requires a central actor who can go the distance. Soon weâ€™ll be able to add the name Essie Davis to the ever-growing list of committed, emotionally complex performances that did not receive critical accolades or awards because they deigned to be only in a horror film (think Deborah Kerr in The Innocents, Dee Wallace in Cujo, Alison Lohman in Drag Me to Hellâ€”the list goes on and on). As Amelia, a single mother doing her damndest to take care of her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), an angry, increasingly violent problem child, Davis is put through a gauntlet. Her character is still suffering over the accidental death of her husband seven years earlier; he was killed in a car crash while the two were driving to the hospital to give birth to Samuel. As the film begins, Amelia is jolted from a nightmare (shades of Nicole Kidmanâ€™s unconsciously troubled protagonist in The Others), although sheâ€™s about to be plunged into a much greater, waking one. Kent swiftly establishes a domestic setting filled with anxiety, expressed in quick cutting and claustrophobic spaces. Samuel is driven to protect his mother from the monsters he reads about in storybooks, like the Big Bad Wolf, but his methods for doing soâ€”such as building destructive catapult devicesâ€”are understandably not appreciated, either at home or in school. Samuelâ€™s childish intensity is not just boys-will-be-boys behavior, but the crying out to resolve unattended emotional issues at home, and, the film implies, a natural response to the dangerous world outside that home, a world that snatched his father away before he was born.
Matters get exponentially worse when Amelia begins to read to Samuel a mysterious storybook that has appeared on his shelf, titled Mister Babadook. Encased in an anonymous hardcover red binding, and featuring neither author credit nor copyright, the creepy pop-up tale has the simple logic and forward momentum of a classic childrenâ€™s picture book (think the great Sesame Streetâ€“branded The Monster at the End of This Book, with its building, pleading tension), yet with an unsettling abstraction. The book itself, illustrated by Alex Juhasz, is a triumph of prop design; its nefarious title creature, a German expressionistâ€“inspired demon with razor sharp fingers and teeth, is so disquieting in drawing and accompanying text that we cannot blame little Samuel when he breaks down in a screaming and sobbing fit before Amelia can even finish reading it to him the first time. As we all know from the images we remember from childhoodâ€”on the page and on the screen, and sometimes in real lifeâ€”what is seen can never be unseen. And Mister Babadook proves to be inescapable. (â€śIf itâ€™s in a word or in a book, you canâ€™t get rid of the Babadook.â€ť) Yet Kent has not just created a story of a cursed object that latches onto the innocent and unsuspecting, Ă la Ringu; instead this is a film about a mother and son forced to deal with their lingering trauma, manifest as a shadowy, cardboard demon dead set on destroying them by turning them against each other. Most of The Babadook functions as the scariest family therapy session ever.
â€śI promise to protect you if you promise to protect me,â€ť Samuel tells his mother at one point. The film is at its most disturbing when it begins to betray the basic, unwritten parent-child contract. What starts off as a skilled â€śthings that go bump in the nightâ€ť storyâ€”in which we and the characters constantly wonder if the disturbance is real or notâ€”turns into something unexpectedly volatile. The more Amelia tries to â€śget rid of the Babadookâ€ť (by tossing out, tearing, or burning the book), the more it gets inside her, gradually turning her from Samuelâ€™s protector to his unstable stalker, a distaff Jack Torrance. Is Amelia even a â€śfitâ€ť mother at all? Has the Babadook come a-calling to reveal her essential powerlessness as a parent or to reaffirm her strength? Shivers turn to wallops, as the threat starts to emanate from within and become concrete, physical. The monster ultimately strips away everything but mother and child for a housebound mano-a-mano showdown, in which we find both love (innate, inescapable) and hate (born of resentment, for taking her husband away) in their purest forms.
Kentâ€™s point is direct and clear and itâ€™s a good one: by repressing the tragedy of her husbandâ€™s death years earlier she has allowed a monster to fester and grow in their minds and in their house, and it will now take over and completely destroy her and her child if she doesnâ€™t finally confront it and fight back. And fight she does, in The Babadookâ€™s Grand Guignol final half hour. But Kent is too cleverâ€”and too ruthlessâ€”to renege on her premise and promise: even if it can be controlled, this is one beast that perhaps cannot be defeated.