NB: I don’t care about spoilers, in fact I really don’t care hard about spoilers… but even if you do there aren’t any here that you won’t find in the trailers and publicity for The Babadook.
My alternative title for writer-director Jennifer Kent’s new low-budget Oz horror film is Parenthood: It’s a Fucking Nightmare That Never Ends. In The Babadook, widowed mother Amelia– suffering from unresolved grief and what could be construed as an open-ended form of postnatal depression– is either being driven mad by her son’s antisocial acting out, or perhaps vice versa and her descent into madness is destroying him. It’s this negative domestic energy that seems to open the door to the storybook character so unnervingly introduced in a Struwwelpeter-esque tome that shows up in their house in advance of Mister Babadook himself.
It’s quite an old school (and distinctly non-American) horror film in the sense that it smoulders incredibly slowly and Kent is scrupulous about neither confirming nor denying whether we’re seeing a potentially lethal folie á deux played out between a mother and son, or something truly supernatural. There are a few missteps: one is the house where most of the action takes place. In a more garish or expressionistic film (like the Mario Bava effort seen fleetingly on TV) it might make sense for a bereaved woman to decide it looks nice and helps the grieving process if you paint all your walls and doors battleship grey, or that it’s healthy to let her emo, disturbed 6 year old play with his dead father’s stuff that she keeps easily accessible down in the cellar. Ooh, symbolism. In a film that’s grounded in psychological realism and successfully extracts a sort of kitchen sink dread from all too recognisable family tensions, the house is already blatantly, ridiculously spooky before the Babadook even comes knocking. Doubly so when you lampshade it by making the protagonist’s sister say she doesn’t like visiting because it’s depressing. It’s like Amelia was having some kind of Borgesian interior decor metacrisis where she realised she was not really a person but only a character in a horror film. There are flashes of deliberate wit and warmth that really work, but seeing The Babadook with a largish audience also confirmed I wasn’t the only one who found some of its very, very wrong parenting unintentionally camp and funny instead of harrowing, in a sort of Joan Crawford Mommy Dearest NO WIRE HANGERRRRS EVAH kind of way. Nowhere near that bad, but definitely on the spectrum; enough to raise a few titters.
Furthermore, for something that’s overtly being hyped as a horror film it’s foreboding but negligibly scary; it’s obviously intended more as a metaphorical exploration of the resentment or anger all parents occasionally feel towards their own children, and the guilt that ensues. In fact it’s almost like a walkthrough of psychoanalyst/paediatrician Donald Winnicott’s theories of child rearing, which were focused on getting past parent-child fears and resentments. This alone should make it clear that Jennifer Kent is not trying to compete with hack bullshit like Insidious or to make another slashers in the house flick. She deserves a huge amount of credit for that, and it’s great to see a labour of love like this getting wide distribution. It’s intelligent, gripping, it looks great and Kent is defiantly uninterested in playing out the ghost train jump scares, clichéd story beats, exhausted tropes and carnographic splatter that constitute the majority of Hollywood’s current horror repertoire. The film’s own publicity namechecks Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen and Let the Right One In among others. It only bears the most passing resemblance to the first of these (mainly in its structure and is it a monster or is she mental? ambiguity) and absolutely none whatsoever to any of the remainder. The Omen in particular is a vastly inferior movie to both The Babadook and Let the Right One In, because The Omen is one of the daftest, most instantly dated and least disturbing horror films ever made. It has a few indelible (but also still daft) images; that’s all. The Babadook has much more in common with Hideo Nakata’s Ringu and Dark Water, or the glacial haunted house film The Others by Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar, in all of which single mothers find out the hard way that being able to grit your teeth and pretend everything’s OK doesn’t make anything really OK, either for the parent or for the child.
There’s also a lot of good stuff in the film about how callous and selfish all of us can sometimes be– unintentionally or otherwise– towards people who are obviously struggling to comply with the demands of society. It’s not going to obliterate the ghost train jump scare movie, but it’s certainly a pleasing alternative for those of us who still think horror films can have a brain in them without that brain being splashed across a wall.