Warning – contains spoilers!
With the advent of All Hallows Eve last weekend, my better half and I settled down in front of the box for our traditional scary movie night. This year’s choice was low budget little Australian flick The Babadook, (hat tip to Mr Bligh yet again, for the recommendation).
The story centres around six year old Samuel who lives with his frazzled and sleep deprived single mum Amelia. We are shown in flashbacks how Samuel’s dad Oskar died in a car accident while driving the pregnant Amelia to hospital to give birth to him. Forward to the present, and Samuel is convinced that an imaginary monster inhabits the house and builds a variety of makeshift weapons to defend himself and Amelia against ‘it’. Her son’s night terrors and increasingly erratic behaviour have caused the sleep deprived Amelia to reach breaking point.
After one of Samuel’s weapons is discovered in his possession at school, Amelia removes him rather than have the boy put under special measures. That evening Samuel selects a bedtime story book called ‘Mr Babadook’ that Amelia is unfamiliar with. At this point the fun kicks in. Mister Babadook turns out to be possibly the most splendidly inappropriate children’s pop up book of all time, its sinister charcoal drawings accompanied by a rhyme that reads like it was written by a particularly vengeful Spike Milligan on a bad acid trip.
As things start to go bump in the night, an increasingly terrified Amelia begins to suspect that Samuel’s insistent warnings about ‘the Babadook’ may well be founded in reality. Or is it all in her head, a twisted hallucination borne of past trauma and too little pillow time?
Well, glad to say it certainly isn’t, and I was cheered that the film didn’t end up going down the route of that well roasted old chestnut of a plot twist. At its core The Babadook is a film about repressed grief; a theme that runs through the film and forms its inner core. Amelia refuses to have Oskar’s name mentioned in her presence, and cuts a rather wan and fragile figure, listlessly moving from one day to the next, feeling increasingly isolated due to her son’s behaviour. It’s almost painful to watch Essie Davies’ nuanced portrayal of a single parent laden down by grief, confronting the seemingly unsympathetic world around her. Amelia’s mental and emotional state is deftly evoked in the films cinematography, all washed out greys punctuated by harsh lighting.
Is the Babadook itself is a manifestation of Amelia’s repressed grief for Oskar, (the Babadook appears to Amelia as her dead husband at one point) brought to the surface by Samuel’s fear of ‘monsters under the bed’ and her subsequent lack of shut eye? The Babadook certainly ends up acting as a catalyst in shaking Amelia out of her moribund state, forcing her to confront her fears (of grieving for Oskar?)
The monster (poltergeist would be more fitting) is a suitably ambiguous presence. Although we are left in no doubt of its malign intent, the spirit’s personality is childlike, if nasty and unpleasant; it hides in dark shadows (Amelia and Samuel’s home is a gloriously lit sound stage steeped in sharp and oppressive shadow of which F W Murnau would have been proud), and delights in mischief like bobbyknocking. In fact, the spirit seems to be capable of being frightened itself as when an enraged Amelia confronts it at the film’s climax forcing it to retreat into the cellar and perceived safety away from a mother’s wrath (in the final scene we see Amelia and Samuel collecting earth worms from the garden which Amelia then takes to feed the Babadook who has taken to living in the cellar, thus representing Amelia coming to terms with her fears and living with the loss of Oskar).
The aspect I loved most about The Babadook (apart from the fantastic, intentionally lo-fi appearance of the Babadook itself, you’ll see what I mean if you watch the film) was the ambiguous nature of the eponymous spirit. It is left unclear as to the provenance of the storybook that unleashes the entity into the lives of Amelia and Samuel, leading one to suspect that both book and spirit are manifestations of either mother or son’s ids, manifesting physically in order to force Amelia to confront her demons. Horror, I think, is the genre that does this sort of ‘show, don’t tell’ approach the best when handled skilfully as I believe it is done here.
But don’t take my word for it. Take a look, ‘cos you can’t escape the Babadook.