The Babadook (2014)

The Babadook published by Grolsch FilmWorks

The Babadook opens with a fixed medium close-up of Amelia (Essie Davis), pregnant and panting in the seat of a moving car. We hear a boy’s voice cry, “Mum!” In slow motion, glass fragments suddenly fly in, and Amelia’s head jolts this way and that from an impact. She turns and we see her husband Oskar (Ben Winspear) in the driver’s seat – the sequence’s only cutaway – and as his face is illuminated by an approaching light and a roar fills the soundtrack, we return to Amelia with an expression of shock and horror. In a fluid, irrational shift, she is falling, screaming, in slow motion, through the air and into her bed.

This is both the opening – and the primal – scene in Jennifer Kent’s feature debut, drawn from her award-winning 2006 short Monster. Amelia’s memory of the car accident which took Oskar’s life as he was driving her to the hospital to give birth is presented as a harrowing nightmare, still vivid and stinging some seven years later, and still invading and disturbing the sleep of this now single mother.

It is also important to note that Amelia’s subjective state of trauma here receives an objective face – her own. Amelia’s visage, it will emerge, is the frequent focus of The Babadook, shown in striking faux-timelapse shots that monitor its every shift, tic and distortion – and you can read the turmoil on it as though on a book. We are watching a character from the outside, but also seeing a monstrous manifestation of her unravelling from the inside. It helps that Davis has the same wide-eyed look of confusion and terror as Sissy Spacek in Carrie (1976). The theme here may be less coming-of-age than coming-to-terms, but Kent, like De Palma, is interested in exploring a damaged, destructive side of femininity.

Once a writer of magazine articles and “some kids’ stuff” but now a grief-stricken carehome worker, Amelia lives with her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), an imaginative, troubled would-be stage illusionist convinced that there is a monster inside, endangering both his own and his mother’s life. Certainly the house is haunted by the unresolved feelings of both mother and son towards their lost husband/father and each other – and when a mysterious pop-up book for children, well, pops up, telling of a creature that insinuates itself into homes before revealing its horrific, murderous reality, every tension in this repressive household begins to assume the shadowy form and malevolent aspect of ‘Mister Babadook’. As the anniversary of Samuel’s birth (and Oskar’s death) approaches, Amelia crumbles and breaks before the monster within – but Samuel, small yet smart and resourceful, will not give up his family without a fight.

In horror and fantasy, the monsters of the mind become real, and psychology is reified. The Babadook is no different, except that the irrational subjectivity that it realises on screen belongs to not one but two characters, shared like a fiction conjured complicitly between magician and audience, or between author and reader. Part of the beauty of Kent’s film is that it tells an unnerving, tragic tale of grief and guilt, of maternity and madness, of love and loss, while always sublimating its subtext to cellar or closet. The other part is that it is beautifully told, giving untold horrors a true, anguished face.

© Anton Bitel