One is hard-pressed to immediately recall a cinematic child as consistently unpleasant as Samuel (Noah Wiseman), one of the two beleaguered protagonists of The Babadook. Plagued by nightmares, he holds onto his mother, Amelia (Essie Davis), in her bed with needful ferocity, wrapping his arms and legs around her and squeezing her with as much strength as his little body can muster, granting her not one iota of private space for sanctuary. When awake, he’s forever fiddling with things, some of which are potentially deadly weapons such as a dart gun or an unusual backpack-like device with a mechanical arm that’s capable of launching a croquette ball across the expanse of a large room. There isn’t a casual moment for Samuel, who’s clearly behaviorally disturbed in a manner that probably requires treatment that Amelia, a financially strapped orderly, almost certainly can’t afford. There are times, such as at a family party with Amelia’s sister, where one can sense Samuel’s unconscious determination to louse things up. He wills chaos, most disturbingly when he pushes his cousin out of her treehouse, breaking her nose.
Most audience members, if they’re honest with themselves, will probably hate Samuel for at least the first half of the film, and they’ll be uncomfortable with the extent of their hatred and with what that says about their capacity for empathy. Samuel’s a poignantly tormented child who’s eventually accorded a disappointingly ordinary redemption, but, like many troubled children, he’s also obstinate, grating, and, perhaps worst of all, infuriatingly incapable of allowing one to take a moment in his presence for granted. This discomfort viscerally extends to the audience, which is conditioned by the shrill soundtrack to dread Samuel’s next shriek, scream, crash, or all-around obnoxious act of invasion. The Babadook is a boldly difficult film to watch, as it connects one directly and inexorably to a mother’s sense of hopelessness and to her blossoming hatred of her son. It often feels as if director Jennifer Kent is on the verge of exposing something deeply taboo and unnerving about the ugly primordial emotions that parents must suppress in order to raise their children, and this is her greatest achievement.
Which is to say that The Babadook operates as a full-throttle horror film long before the titular boogeyman shows up. The monster is an overly explicit extension of Amelia’s rage and potential madness, an embodiment of the possibility that she might give in to those darkest fantasies that she entertains when life with Samuel reaches the nadir of tolerability. An uncharacteristically nasty children’s pop-up book doesn’t merely stir Samuel’s imagination, heightening his already pronounced social incompetency; it also affects Amelia, who might not greet a monster determined to eat her child with too much resistance. Chillingly, the storybook that summons the Babadook doesn’t appear to be have been published and conventionally bound. It’s contained in a red notebook, causing one to wonder if Amelia might have put it together herself and forgotten about it until Samuel’s behavior inspires a subconscious conjuring. Tellingly, the camera pushes in on a close-up of Amelia’s face as she reads the book, suggesting that something from the story is taking growth in her, and this image, set against black, echoes the recurring images that show Amelia floating in nothingness after the wreck that took her husband’s life years ago (which happened, of course, on the day that Samuel was born).
The Babadook is an often terrifying white-knuckler that plays as a welcome corrective to horror films, most recently and notably The Conjuring, that revel in poisoned motherhood with no acknowledgement of the challenges that are inherent in the role. The level of understanding accorded to Amelia is remarkable and bracing, particularly in a heartbreaking scene in which Samuel pounces on the poor woman while she’s masturbating. Amelia truly can’t find a moment’s solace, and she feels estranged from the middle-class adult life that her sister and her sister’s clueless, snobbish friends accept as a given. Amelia’s a decent person besieged by recognizable problems, which renders her flirtation with annihilation all the more unsettling.
Yet, there’s also something faintly irritating about the film’s relentlessness, which is brought into starker clarity when The Babadook evolves into a more or less traditional possession fable. Kent is overly occupied with her stricken-mother metaphor, and she pounds it into the figurative ground long after the audience has gotten the point. (A tendency that’s especially insufferable in regard to the hyperbolic soundtrack, such as when the monster begins to shriek like Samuel, at similarly glass-shattering decibels and for seemingly quarter hours at a time.) We’re allowed to discover precious little for ourselves, as every detail fussily connects back to the central conceit. Even the film’s elegant cinematography, all charcoal grays and blacks, is literalized as resembling the shades of the drawings in the Babadook book. The film is a strange, effective blend of psychological thriller and supernatural stalker film, suggesting Repulsion by way of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, though it divorces the former’s claustrophobia from its sense of attending mystery, and the latter’s gonzo aestheticism from its sense of attending play. Kent relishes Amelia’s misery as a formal catch-all excuse to make her audience miserable.
Image clarity and detail level are top-notch. There may be some black crush, but that scanned to this critic as deliberate stylization on the part of the filmmakers, as the cinematography is intended to evoke the bold, primal gothic blacks and grays of a children’s possibly malevolent pop-up book. Blacks are generally lush and well-differentiated throughout. The white light that periodically punctuates the darkness is contrastingly vibrant. It’s a beautiful image. The two sound mixes, particularly the English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, are models of aural horror-movie editing, honoring the film’s distinctly dense and guttural soundscapes. Nuance and dimension are also terrific. Dialogue is mostly bell-clear, and though it’s occasionally obscured by the score, this also scans as deliberate.
A variety of short, enjoyable featurettes contextualize the creation of the Babadook pop-up book, the staging of two pivotal stunts, and the fashioning of the set that stands in for the film’s memorable Victorian home. The set tour is the most interesting, as it illustrates just how many elements were exaggerated to achieve the film’s storybook aesthetic. A long collection of interviews with the cast and crew are charming, but tend to dawdle repetitively, with the exception of the segment with writer-director Jennifer Kent, who poignantly implies that she was a late career bloomer who switched from acting to directing, partially after a formative experience on the set of Dogville. Kent does, however, have a regrettable tendency to sell her film short with conventional descriptions that fail to capture its thorniness. The best supplement, however, is Kent’s short film Monster, which she later fleshed out into The Babadook. The confident work shows quite a bit of Kent’s sensibility to already be in place, particularly the intricate sound mixing, tactile handmade effects, and elegant photography (black-and-white in this case). Rounding out the package are two trailers, and a rather snazzy Babadook pop-up slip-cover.
The Babadook may overplay its hand, but it’s still a harrowing tale of a mother-son haunting that manages to uncomfortably detonate several theoretically reassuring parental platitudes. Probably not the ideal gift for Mother’s Day.