In the 2010 film Rabbit Hole, a character compares grief to a stone that you carry around in your pocket. There are times when it is easy to forget about this extra weight, but then one day you reach into your jacket and suddenly remember that it’s there. The grief of losing a loved one can never fully vanish. It will always be there in some form, whether it be as a stone in your pocket or as a spindly fingered, top hat-wearing boogeyman. If that latter comparison makes little sense, then you should see Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook. In addition to being a thoroughly satisfying horror film, it is an extraordinary character-driven story about a woman trying to recover from the loss of her husband.
When Amelia (Essie Davis) first appears on screen, it is clear she is exhausted. Her six-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is terrified by recurring nightmares, and he keeps her awake with his incessant talking and erratic behavior. The two have hardly slept in the last several weeks. As physically tired as Amelia is, though, it is nothing in comparison to her mental and emotional exhaustion. Six years before, on the night Samuel was born, her husband was killed in a car accident. She tells everyone that she has moved on, but it is clear that the wounds of this trauma are still quite fresh. She can hardly bring herself to embrace Samuel, whom she resents for being a painful reminder of the accident.
It is during one of their many sleepless nights that Samuel discovers a children’s book in the house and asks Amelia to read it to him. Entitled Mister Babadook, the book seems far too spooky for children’s eyes. As the story so graphically explains, the titular character will knock three times on your door. If you let him in, he will relentlessly pursue you until you are driven to insanity. There is no escaping him and no way of killing him. While Samuel is terrified by the story, Amelia dismisses it. Several days later there come three knocks on the door, and… well… Amelia should have taken the story more seriously.
The arrival of the Babadook signals the start of an utterly terrifying experience. What is so remarkable is that Kent and her production team are quite economical with their scare tactics. There are a wide variety of disturbing sound effects, such as when Amelia picks up the phone, and the Babadook screeches to her in a guttural voice (Ba..ba ba…dook! Dook! DOOK!). When the creature makes any appearances on screen, much of the fright is derived from his costume, in particular a pair of immense, bone-like gloves that hang from his outstretched arms. Nearly every other stylistic choice succeeds in exacerbating the film’s terror, and The Babadook can simply be appreciated as a well-crafted horror story.
However, it is far more than that. It is rare for a scary movie to be so character-focused. Many horror films are driven by plot, and people are treated as secondary components. Amelia, though, is a well-drawn character. So much focus is placed on detailing the particulars of her pain and struggles. Her son, already an object of resentment, becomes increasingly disobedient as the story progresses. Amelia tries to be a loving mother, but exhaustion and frustration begin to take their toll. In fact, the film makes it clear that there is an undeniable relationship between the Babadook and Amelia’s festering grief. The emotions that she has denied for six years have manifested physically, and she must face them if she wants to survive. Amelia is less at the mercy of the Babadook than she is with herself.
While Kent’s direction and screenplay deserve a large amount of credit, The Babadook’s success would not be possible without Davis’s extraordinary performance. She must vacillate between being a sympathetic mother and a woman on the brink of insanity. She plays both roles seamlessly and never loses sight of the character that lies beneath the layers of suffering. Davis’s work reinforces the dual achievements of The Babadook. The film is most definitely terrifying, but it is also uncommonly thoughtful. Once your screams subside, the story will stay with you like a stone in your pocket.
– Jacob Carter