Grief can make monsters out of people, and Jennifer Kent’s chilling and extraordinary debut horror film beautifully encapsulates this thesis with intelligence and aplomb. Not that it’s served up right away into your platter, no. The Babadook, for all its reliance on a few horror tropes in its first hour, consciously takes its precious time building up escalating dread, relying less on the bargain-basement jump scares that most horror films have bombarded us over the years and rather on the domestic and maternal anxieties of a single mother pushed to the very end of her wits. Like its recent contemporary throwback-horror counterparts The Conjuring and the magnificently twisty Oculus, it simulates familiar, if not entirely rote, genre elements to unearth deeper human psychological traumas and mental disturbance to unnerving effect that’s more akin to the early works of Roman Polanski and Stanley Kubrick. Take this as a surreal yet equally frightening horror concoction of Polanski’s diptych masterpiece Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, as well as Kubrick’s The Shining, where protagonists descend into mental and ontological breakdown, deep into visceral madness where a very real human terror reign.[divider]+[/divider]
A mother’s scorn is unmatched by any bogeyman in a closet, and it is a testament to Essie Davis’ blazing, ferocious performance as the nerve-wracked matron Amelia that The Babadook scorches with emotional intensity.[divider]+[/divider]
At the onset, The Babadook relegates horror tropes of yesteryears into the proceedings – a creaky house, a forbidden cellar, a creepy wardrobe and a macabre children’s storybook that no sane human being could have ever written or illustrated other than a psychopath. Add to that a screeching, attention-deficit kid guaranteed to drive everyone around nuts, let alone an overworked, depressed, sleep-deprived single mother. All of which are dispatched adroitly by Kent, subverting the commonplace elements into an intensely character-driven portrait that involves three of the most horrific human conditions – motherhood, loneliness and grief. The arrival of the titular creature itself, a nod to the classic bogeyman prototype, is externalised first as a foggy dark entity from a closet and then a stalking, ominous presence, treated with an element of uncertainty, toying with our perception that this Beelzebub might be just a manifestation of the mother’s increasingly fractured psyche.
And this is where The Babadook draws its primordial power, touching on some dark, terrifying human truth that the loss of a loved one can be an all-consuming existential despair. That the death of Essie’s husband has cast a long, overpowering shadow on the mother and son, where the matriarch is infinitely stuck in a profoundly conflicted love-hate relationship with her six-year old offspring, whose very existence is subconsciously resented by a mother who has lost a husband on the eve of her child’s birth. Halfway through when the film has eschewed all conventional genre devices, you’d genuinely start worrying for the life of this boisterous yet fiercely loyal child, who vows to protect his mother from the bogeyman at all cost, only to face a more formidable, flesh-and-blood monster. A mother’s scorn is unmatched by any bogeyman in a closet, and it is a testament to Essie Davis’ blazing, ferocious performance as the nerve-wracked matron Amelia that The Babadook scorches with emotional intensity. Hell hath no fury than a mother at the end of her tether, and as Amelia swerves from doting mothership to flaming diablo almost at a heartbeat, any child’s worst fear is personified on screen, just the way Jack Nicholson did for mad, drunken fathers in The Shining. The subtle difference is that Kent’s film reinforces single motherhood. Grief is ‘horror’ itself – but it’s not something to overcome or be frightened of. One just have to learn and live with it. It’s not often a horror film comes up with a statement as truthful as this.