You might think that Amelia (Essie Davis), the harried single mother at the center of the festival-circuit hit The Babadook, has lost the capacity to be terrified. Being the mother of a young child, she worries as mothers do, but she’s already lost her husband under horrific circumstances before the movie even begins. It would seem impossible for anything to happen that would be worse than what she’s already seen. That’s where all of the great horror movies play, in that vague space implied by the words “seem” and “impossible,” and this film is indeed one of the greats.
Amelia finds a creepy pop-up book on her son’s shelf one night, and the film follows its children’s-book dream logic almost exactly. There is a monster called Mister Babadook. You can’t see him at first, but you can’t be rid of him either, hearing his knocking on your bedroom door every night. And then you do see him … which is when the really scary stuff happens.
The amazing thing about this film is that writer/director Jennifer Kent is aware of her audience’s cynicism with respect to horror films, and is able to neuter it completely. For almost half of the film’s run time, Amelia’s son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is the only one who can see the Babdook, and Amelia is certain that he isn’t real. The audience knows otherwise, of course, because this is a haunted-house movie and its trailer promised a real haunt. All the same, Kent isn’t afraid to linger in the new place where Amelia finds herself, a horror that she hadn’t thought of before: her son slowly being driven mad by a thing that can’t possibly be real. It’s perfect setup for the subsequent, still greater horror, when the monster turns out to be real after all.
A lot of the metaphor in this film is delivered by Kent’s impeccable timing and sense of space. Before the book is read, it seems that Amelia and Samuel are living in a house far too big for two people, the deceased husband and father’s presence felt through the huge empty spaces on screen. All it takes is the suggestion of a Babadook (and Kent’s direction) to change the mood to one of claustrophobia, where the house is now far too small to tolerate its newest resident.
That leaves us with the Babadook himself, who is not simply an effective metaphor but a horror so formless that he can represent almost anything. He could symbolize a mother being torn between wanting to shield her child from danger and needing to let the child live his own life. He represents grief to some degree, especially since he comes around at a time when Amelia’s loss feels especially painful. For this critic, the Babadook stood simply for fear: fear of death, fear of the unknown, fear of seeing one’s life unravel from the tugging of a dozen different threads at once. During two different encounters with the Babadook, Amelia responds simply by pulling the bedsheets up over her head, a child’s primal response to any fear lurking in the dark. This film is full of small, simple moments that are as equally pregnant with symbolism.
Davis, an Australian star whom American audiences might recognize from Baz Luhrman’s Australia or a small role as a doctor in the latter two Matrix films, is remarkable in an incredibly demanding role. She’s actually at her best when Amelia is weakened by everyday agonies: sleep deprivation, grief, the drudgery of her job, the unpredictable behavior of a young boy. She doesn’t project additional vulnerability once the monster comes into the mix, because she doesn’t need to: everyday life has left her vulnerable as she could be. Davis’ performance is a fine example of how it could be so for any one of us.
It’s no surprise that Kent was in the running to direct the planned Wonder Woman film, because while there is nothing particularly superheroic about The Babadook, it is so finely tuned a film that its director should be considered for anything. Every scene is as perfectly long as it should be, every moment as tense as is needed, and superb performances are drawn from every actor present. Like all of the great horror films, it possess a primal, timeless quality, equally appropriate for the eras of the rotary-dial telephone or the iPhone. See it on a big screen if you can, among a lively audience, the way that all of the great horror films should be seen.