If it’s in a film or it’s in a book,
It might be as real as the Babadook.
Believing in fairies is darling and cute;
What is the worst they can do?
Believing in him will put him in pursuit,
And now he is after you.
You may say there’s no Babadook;
Deny it all you like.
It’s just a silly made-up book,
Until you see him strike.
The thought of him will mean he’s there,
Which means he always is.
The Babadook is everywhere,
When he decides you’re his.
MPAA rating: Not Rated (might be R for intensity and brief language, but actual content is closer to PG-13)
In the proud tradition (and bad habit) I’ve adopted of watching a scary movie alone at night (also done with The Others and The Conjuring), I decided to investigate the universally lauded Australian horror The Babadook. Like the other fright fests I mentioned, I found it to be very much my kind of horror: one with more focus on atmosphere than jumps, featuring complex relationships and psychological distress, and almost devoid of blood. But dang, is it frightening! Poltergeist is a walk in the park next to this top-hatted creature feature.
The story centers on Amelia Vanek (Essie Davis), a struggling mother still deeply grieving her husband’s death and quietly resentful of her young son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who was born the day his father died. Samuel continually causes problems at school and obsesses over monsters he imagines himself fighting with homemade weaponry. Then comes an innocent bedtime story, where a randomly chosen pop-up book takes a swift left turn; how many books from your childhood ended with “You’re going to wish that you were dead”? After that, Sam becomes convinced the Babadook from the book is real, much to Amelia’s annoyance. When she learns that her denial makes the creature stronger, though, it begins to target her, turning her exasperation with her son into madness.
For her directorial debut, writer/director Jennifer Kent did an outstanding job with developing the mood of unease to which most horror films only aspire. With inventive camera angles and muted colors, the Vanek’s home becomes a breeding ground of anxiety, and after the picture book mentioned three knocks as the creature’s call sign, I liked how there were three knocks anytime someone was at the door, instilling worry regardless of who was really there. As I’ve said before, the most effective scares are often the simplest, and The Babadook doesn’t need set pieces or creepy dolls to freak out the audience. The most intense moment stems from the knowledge of a barely glimpsed something present, against which Amelia can only cover herself with her blanket and hope she is wrong. It’s the kind of visceral tension that hits on a child-like level. The fact that we only see flashes of the Babadook’s shape and long fingers only makes him more mysterious and frightening, a newly invented boogeyman for the ages, especially when he says his own name like some diseased Pokémon.
What makes The Babadook so intriguing is its symbolic nature. While it can be enjoyed as a familiar haunted house picture, it also puts an emphasis on the mother/son dynamic. When Amelia falls under the Babadook’s influence, she lashes out at Samuel, and we’re left uncertain how much of her rage is possession and how much is simply being released for the first time from pressure and lack of sleep. Samuel may seem like an irritating problem child at first, but his initial belief in the Babadook allows him to defend his mother, prove his love for her, and convince her to banish her oppressive grief. On a more conjectural note, the Babadook might also represent the demonic spirit behind all these news stories of murder-suicides that no one seems to comprehend, and Amelia and Samuel are just the latest to fall under its influence. Either way, the resolution is far different from the usual “evil-wins-to-scare-another-day” ending that most horrors try to spin into a sequel, and it makes clear the film’s bittersweet metaphor of grief.
As much as I admired The Babadook and acknowledge it as one of the most chilling films I’ve seen, there is one aspect that I think allows The Conjuring to edge it out in my opinion. They both depict evil being confronted by familial love, and while that’s enough for the purely secular Babadook, The Conjuring also utilizes religion in its arsenal against the malevolent spirit at work. I appreciate that the dark presence is subdued in both films, but the role of Christianity tips the scales for James Wan’s film and makes its conquering of evil more convincing in my eyes. The Babadook still has a meaningful end, though, especially when taken more allegorically than literally.
Although some of the editing is a bit choppy toward the beginning, I see why The Babadook is considered a modern classic. Because of its cult following, they’ve even distributed copies of the Babadook’s disturbing storybook; who would want one of those around the house?! With an emotional backbone, intense performances, and moments of unbearable suspense, it’s got more than the usual chills and thrills and doesn’t rely on gory effects to make an impact.
Best line: (crazed Amelia, to Samuel) “I AM YOUR MOTHER!!!”
Rank: List Runner-Up
© 2016 S.G. Liput
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