“If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”
There’s a cavernous emptiness to the relatively small house that Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) live in. The absence of Amelia’s husband, who died while taking Amelia to the hospital to deliver Samuel, hangs heavy over every room, and there’s a stillness to the house that’s less content than it is representative of your average mausoleum. The Babadook, writer-director Jennifer Kent’s superb debut, trades heavily on that stillness, both for the sake of well-executed horror movie beats and for a crushing sense of grievous sadness that the film uses to immaculate effect.
Amelia’s trying to do the best she can with the situation she’s been given, but the best simply isn’t enough. Setting aside for a moment her perpetual inability to mourn her lost love on her own time, or the collective perception of her as a sad sack by everybody, including her exasperated sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney), there’s still Samuel. However badly Amelia might be feeling, Samuel is far worse off. He’s convinced beyond all doubt that their house is full of monsters, to the point where he wakes up screaming multiple times a night, can barely survive being away from his mother’s side, and has started fashioning violent weapons in his spare time. It’s PTSD, sure, but it also puts Amelia in the unenviable position of having to tend to her deeply aggravating child, constantly.
And then there’s the book. One night, when Samuel requests his customary bedtime story, he pulls from his shelf a book called Mister Babadook. It tells the story of a mysterious creature with Freddy Krueger-like hands and a revolting smile, one that can’t be disposed of once you let it in. Samuel knows how real the Babadook is from the moment he lays eyes on it, but Amelia refuses to suffer his monster nonsense any longer. Then things get bad, and that’s when The Babadook turns into two kinds of an excellent film at once. It’s a perfectly executed, no-budget horror film, and it’s also a remarkably nuanced parable about post-partum depression and the ways in which society forces mothers into roles they don’t necessarily want to play.
As Amelia, Davis gives a soulful, emotionally fried performance. She starts the film at the end of her rope and spends the next 90-odd minutes falling ever further away from it. The Babadook confronts one of the world’s great taboos head-on: What happens when you have a child that you surely love, but don’t necessarily like, and occasionally wish wasn’t around at all? It’s not that Samuel is inherently a bad kid; he’s precociously intelligent and fiercely protective of Amelia, but he’s also anxious to the point of being parasitic and seemingly can’t function around anybody other than his mother. He throws constant screaming fits and can’t even keep it together long enough for his mother to get herself off or watch TV or do virtually anything for herself for even a few minutes. Even Claire can tell that Amelia isn’t completely all-in on motherhood with this particular ragamuffin. He’s a walking reminder of how much she’s had to take on by herself, and she can only handle so much.
When the film turns horrifying, The Babadook deftly negotiates the thin line between a well-handled metaphor and a hamfisted one and never strays from the right side of it. Eventually Amelia’s very sanity will come into question, as the book’s prophecies turn more real, and both of their behaviors start growing increasingly erratic. Through it, Kent boxes them into increasingly tight spaces, lingering for long stretches on the terror and panic inside both of them, whether or not monsters are even involved. The Babadook is scary as all hell at points, but what lingers longest after the film is over isn’t even the potential threat of a Babadook, though it assuredly does, but the reality of Amelia’s situation. Like the best horror movies, it could happen to anybody, and whether we want to talk about it or not, it sometimes does. So it’s fitting, then, that The Babadook is the best horror film of this year, hands down.