In the interest of full disclosure, I am not what one would consider to be a “horror junkie”. It has been my experience that the two most difficult genres to do well are horror and comedy, and they are probably the two genres I watch least because of this. I would argue that the main reason is that it’s very difficult to find something that is universally scary or universally funny. But every once in a while, a film comes along where everyone involved knows what they are doing and are able to deliver an experience that defines the genre.
Such is the case with The Babadook, a 2014 psychological horror film written and directed by Jennifer Kent. It is, without any hyperbole, the scariest movie that I have ever seen. While the camera work that goes into making the movie scary while you are watching it is nothing less than masterful, it isn’t what makes the movie stick out for me. Rather, it is the terrifying implications of the movie’s themes that made this film such a profoundly unsettling viewing experience for me.
When I finished The Babadook I was resolved that I would never watch it again because it bothered me so completely. But over the next few days the ideas, themes and visuals of the film gnawed at my mind, festering inside of me because I had to talk about what a special, unique film this was.
You really need to give this a look.
The film stars Essie Davis as grieving widow Amelia and Noah Wiseman as her troubled son Samuel. Sam has an obsession with monsters and is convinced that there is one in his room; he rarely sleeps and grows violent whenever someone suggests that the monster isn’t real. While Amelia is skeptical, her life takes a dark turn when her son asks her to read a children’s book called “Mister Babadook”. The book proves not to be remotely suitable for children, though I won’t give specifics as it is best discovered by the viewer. However, after the book is read Samuel’s problems become worse. Even after she disposes of the book, Sam starts to see the monster everywhere that he goes, making it difficult for his mother to sleep and slowly driving her mad.
Eventually Amelia goes to a doctor to get pills to make her son sleep so that she can get some peace and quiet. This seems to work at first, but things take a turn for the worse when “Mister Babadook” shows up in her living room. Unable to resist the urge to read it again, Amelia finds that new pages have been added which warn her that the more she denies the existence of The Babadook, the worse it will get. And very soon it is not Sam who is plagued by images of Mister Babadook, but Amelia.
And much like this movie did for me, The Babadook gets in Amelia’s head and festers inside and makes her into a monster that is possessed with the idea that she must kill her son. And this is where the film becomes truly terrifying.
The Babadook blends the line between pure horror films and traditional character dramas so seamlessly that it’s almost impossible to tell which one it is at points. Jennifer Kent clearly knows how to make a good horror film. The colors are muted in a depressing fashion and even the most mundane of objects is shot in such a way that is off-putting. Perhaps the most effective tool in Kent’s arsenal is the design of the house that this mother and son live in. It is small and dark and in serious need of repair, but also has so many doors and sharp turns that it’s impossible not to feel claustrophobic watching the movie.
Before even the most routine of scares makes its way into the narrative, the cinematography puts the viewer on edge. The fact that the boy’s constant screaming truly grates on the viewers nerves enhances this unease. We feel Amelia’s pain and almost want her to shut the boy up somehow. Once it becomes clear that is exactly where the narrative is going, it’s hard not to feel a sense of regret for wishing such a horrible thing.
And just so we are absolutely clear, the “Mister Babadook” book is something that is going to haunt my nightmares for years to come. It’s a brilliant prop and a true piece of art.
My next paragraph contains a major spoiler, so if you have not yet seen The Babadook, please stop here and find some way to watch it. The quickest way is Netflix but even the Blu-Ray copy is relatively inexpensive for a new release. Once you’ve seen it, feel free to come back and read about what this movie is actually about.
The Babadook is not a real monster at all. At least, not in the traditional sense. The monster in this movie is the grief and rage that Amelia has towards her son for surviving when her husband died and for being such a difficult child. Amelia wants to kill her son because he causes her so much pain that it drives her mad. This is why the film is so unsettling and sticks with the viewer; it goes to a very raw, unhappy place that very few movies are willing to go to.
It presents an idea that is more horrifying than the monster on the screen. And it does this by giving us characters we truly go to care about, putting them in a situation none of us want to be in, and ultimately, showing that love is more powerful than hate. It succeeds as a horror film without resorting to cheap jump scares, displaying gruesome deaths or even showing the monster in full.
I absolutely love and adore this film. It made me genuinely afraid, but it also made me care about its characters and gave me material that resonated and stuck with me, making me think and challenge myself to figure out what the movie was really trying to say. That’s the kind of ambition that most horror films lack and why The Babadook stands out.
Check this movie out. You probably won’t be able to get rid of it either.