I first came across The Babadook (2014) at university; I was studying a course dedicated to the creation of horror fiction and our professor showed us the trailer for inspiration. I can remember thinking that I had yet to see anything like it. The atmosphere of the film seemed to pervade out into the classroom. Its heavy use of greys and blacks bled out of the screen and onto our desks. It would be close to another year before I was able to actually see the film in its entirety despite circling it at several festivals. Luckily for the world it is now wildly available on streaming services and it’s this week’s Pick of Online Film here on culturised.
Like many great horror films, The Babadook is an exercise in increments. Unlike many great horror films, it chooses to focus not on the destruction of a nuclear family but on the trauma and aftermath of one’s demise. Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother to Sam (Noah Wiseman) whose father was killed in a car crash on their way to the hospital to deliver Sam. That was six years ago, and Amelia still can’t even bring herself to celebrate Sam’s birthday on its actual date because of her sorrow; she elects instead to organise a joint party on a different day with her sister Claire’s daughter. To say that there are some issues that haven’t been properly dealt with in Amelia and Sam’s life is an understatement. Sam cannot sleep; he fashions dangerous weapons out of refuse he scrounges from his father’s forgotten things in the basement; he practically begs for constant attention from Amelia and seems to function without a filter. Things go from bad to worse when Sam is sent home from school for having brought in a homemade dart gun. Amelia is overwhelmed and after a long day allows Sam to pick out a book from the shelf. She doesn’t think much of it when he come back with a cloth covered red book titled “Mister Babadook”, that is until she begins to read. As the eponymous book states, “If it’s in a word or in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook”, and from here the film evolves into a meditation of grief, single parenthood and life-transitions with offshoots of good old fashioned horror woven throughout.
After the original reading of the book “Mister Babadook”, Sam begins to see the fictional character everywhere. He is sent home from his Aunt Claire’s early for talking to the invisible monster and scaring his cousin. This reduces Amelia’s already limited social interactions to that of just her and Sam. Things get worse when the Babadook’s book begins to turn up in odd places, this time stating that Amelia will kill Sam and eventually herself. This revelation is intensified by the weird things that start to happen around the house and the growing presence of a black figure that seems to be hiding in the shadows.
What makes The Babadook worthy of inclusion as a Pick of Online Film is its singular vision and execution, attributable to the film having been both written and directed by Jennifer Kent in what is her feature film debut. Just as I had felt to be the case from first seeing the trailer, nearly everything about The Babadook is unique. When watching the film I never felt like I had seen elements of it in other horror films. To pick just one feature in which The Babadook stands apart from other films of its genre, the design of the house in which the characters – and by extension the audience – spend a great deal of time is very effective. I’ve never seen color used quite the way it is in constructing the environment of Amelia and Sam’s house in The Babadook. Everything has a washed out, drab feel, yet instead of blurring the action with a lens or filter, the colour tone comes from the house set itself. The walls are a very pale blue, and the effect achieved when these walls are lit at night by very small, hard light sources gives the film a distinctly monochromatic feel. The result is The Babadook makes use of shadows in a way that certainly hasn’t been seen since film made the transition to colour, a cinematic feature further exacerbated by the Babadook’s deep black form and white face.
Another feature of The Babadook that Kent’s use of the light blue in the house brings to the forefront is the way the memory of her husband haunts Amelia. The Babadook’s use of light blue for the walls of the house, blue also being the traditional colour assigned to male babies at birth in western society, can be read as the creation of a gendered space in which Amelia constantly has to navigate. The masculine nature of Amelia’s surroundings continues into the night when the blue fades to a dark grey and the shadows begin to move on the walls. Sam himself is a living ghost of his father, saying to Amelia, “I’ll protect you, if you protect me.” Once the Badadook (another male character) begins to weave its way into Amelia’s life the gendered horror begins to spread outside the house’s area of influence. One memorable scene includes Amelia driving home only to have the figure of the Babadook appear in her rearview mirror, which results in a minor collision with an overly aggressive male motorist. The man immediately informs Amelia she is not only endangering everyone on the road, but also the life of her child through her actions.
In my view, what Kent has tapped into with Amelia’s plight of single motherhood and grief through a feminine gaze is exactly what makes The Babadook different from typical horror offerings from male writers and directors. Much online vitriol has been aimed at the film over the past few years from trolls stating that Sam is merely autistic and annoying. Sam is a difficult character without a doubt; he certainly doesn’t act in the precocious, self-motivating, vapid ways most child characters do in films. At certain moments the character makes conversational changes and leaps that feel far more adult, but I attribute this to overall sense of mood Kent is focused on creating: Sam is a child dealing with the absence of his father and an imperfect channel of communication with his still grieving mother. Ironically enough the critics online also seem to forget that little boys—a group to which nearly all internet trolls once belonged, or indeed to which they still belong—are complicated, and often just plain weird. Children are a whirling dervish of learned behavior and are constantly testing the limits of what grown-ups tell them to do. But children are also vulnerable. What sustains the horror of The Babadook is the thought that maybe the weird things children imagine and obsess over are real. From an adult perspective this becomes more terrifying when we realise – as this film forces us to – that if the monster under the bed is real, it is our responsibility to deal with it.
The Babadook is available in the US on Netflix and on Amazon Instant Video in the UK.