The Babadook isn’t as much a horror film as it is a myth. In a quiet bedroom on a neighborhood block similar to yours, in the dark where the only light is from the street and telling the difference between a coat and a monster’s arm is almost impossible are where nightmares begin. If it weren’t for the Australian accents, this little family in their nondescript house and hooptie could be anywhere. But by the end of the film, the question is not whether or not the boogie man is real, but who exactly created him. Was it mom’s grief or a child’s coping mechanism? What came first: the chicken or the egg?
The film unfolds as a drama for the first twenty minutes or so and really forces you to live the real nightmare of loss within the dynamic of a mother and the son she doesn’t like. We’ve all seen this woman on the train or in the grocery store. She looks as though she hasn’t slept in a year and dutifully drifts through aisles with a shrieking child at her heels. The Babadook brings you into the nightmare of her real life before introducing the “monster”. Although Sam (Noah Wiseman) is a little hellion and Amelia (Essie Davis) visibly resents him, they’re less hateful than they are painfully vulnerable. Amelia may be at the end of her tether but she is trying her hardest to cope, even if she is failing. Although Sam screams at the frequency children master at birth that rattles adults’ skulls in that specific maddening place, the arsenal he has built in preparation for the as yet unseen monster that would make Dutch from Predator proud. Neither protagonist is without their assets.
Then via an unassuming red children’s book, we meet Mister Babadook. This is by no means a “creature feature” film, but director Jennifer Kent firmly commits to practical effects and instead of CGI which makes the monster feel tangible. Shadows are constant players in genre films such as this, but here they serve to create that specific view seen from bed at 3 am with only street light to illuminate the room. Is that the arm of your coat in that corner, or Mister Babadook preparing to deliver a Mortal Kombat style fatality?
The real and the surreal bleed into one another despite how relatable and straight-forward the setting and characters are. As the scenes alternate between dreams and reality, the characters themselves are not trustworthy narrators and what they saw or experienced may not always be real. Coupled with the odd visuals is a specific and unobtrusive sound design. There is little in overbearing audio clues to herald a moment of madness or the arrival of Mister Babadook. Instead, even when there are swells, they’re cut off suddenly leaving you thrown off as though you’ve just awoken from a daydream with the ambient scene sounds to bring you back to reality. In fact, it’s only after the moment has passed that you truly realize your hands were clenched and your shoulders had hunched.
Of course motherhood is no picnic. It’s common knowledge that children are as terrible, selfish little creatures as they are vulnerable. As awful as they are, even the most terrifying horror flick cannot compare to the nightmares of the kid next door. After seeing firsthand their trials and practically living with these two vulnerable characters, the arrival of that red storybook strikes real fear into the heart of the viewer. We feel for these characters and yet, all we can do is watch and hope for the best. The Babadook is not merely a psychological thriller, but a nuanced narrative of the horror show of parenthood and the destructive nature of grief. Kent reminds us that like Mister Babadook in the basement, the grief monster can be tamed and adjusted to, this does not mean it is forgotten. Every now and again, it must be acknowledged and its appetite sated before you can lock it back up and live one day at a time even if that does mean being brave enough to face it.