All in her head? Danni Glover is troubled by The Babadook.
It’s a fool’s errand to expect much of commercial horror releases during the month of October. I’m not a purist by any means, but I am cynical enough to think that when a film comes out this month with something of the macabre about it, it’s usually because at some point, someone decided it was the only time of year it was likely to make any money. This is the first October in many years that hasn’t been blighted by a new entry in the Paranormal Activity franchise, and it’s a convenient landing strip for the more unnecessary, unimaginative, and sub-par remakes we’ve seen in recent years. The Babadook has been lumped in with the bargain-bin set. It probably won’t make a huge amount of money. Not because it isn’t any good, but because it’s just weird. It’s unsettling in a way that doesn’t make you want to eat popcorn and cuddle. In fact, it’s very good, and sad, and insightful. And scary.
The Babadook tells us the story of Amelia (Essie Davis) a single mother stretched too thin by her essentially good-natured but badly behaved son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Samuel’s boyhood interest in magic tricks, scary stories and weapons is familiar to anybody who has met a ten-year-old boy, to be fair, but he tempers his hobbies with paranoid obsession which comes to a head when he and his mother read a bedtime story called ‘Mister Babadook’, about an unshakable malevolent presence. Unshakable it proves to be, as Amelia cannot stop her son from fixating on the Babadook, nor can she successfully throw the book away. She and Samuel become increasingly terrified and isolated, haunted by the book’s refrain: “You can’t get rid of the Babadook”.
I’ve very much enjoyed Antipodean horror films, recently. I think the campy gore of Wolf Creek is very well done, The Loved Ones is the best teen horror movie of the past five years, and James Wan is perhaps the most prolific genre director currently working. There’s plenty in The Babadook that feels familiar. The film itself is actually remarkable for the number of genre allusions in which it indulges. When Amelia is desperately trying to stay awake, the scene is straight out of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Essie Davis’s steely, brittle performance is reminiscent of Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, but with less of the fragile desperation of a victim and more glassy-eyed denial. What sets this film apart from the roots of its family tree is the almost inevitable introspection that follows the experience of watching it. If A Nightmare on Elm Street challenges you to lie awake at night afraid of the noises in the dark, The Babadook forces you to lie awake afraid that your life is falling apart around you. It’s a nice change of pace from recent horror fare: I enjoyed The Conjuring for most of its 112 minutes and was completely untroubled by it afterwards, but The Babadook only got more worrisome as time went on.
Plenty of critics have drawn a comparison between The Babadook and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. It’s a fair line to draw. Isolation, the peril of the supernatural for children, close-up shots of wide-mouthed women screaming in terror, and above all, madness. For me, The Shining is terrifying because it’s a kind of madness that doesn’t make sense to me. The Babadook, on the other hand, makes perfect sense. Unlike Jack Torrence, there is no blaming Amelia’s erratic and frightening behaviour on the geographical location of trauma. Her trauma exists inside her head. While we do get a sense that the family home is on a boiling pot fuelled by the frenetic, uncontrollable energy of Samuel and the tired, listless depression of Amelia, the scariest moments come when Amelia is left alone with her own sense of dread. For me, the chaos of The Babadook comes not from these two elements meeting in the one house, but in the one person. And as familiar as the inter-genre connections this film makes are, the familiarity I found in Amelia’s emotional and mental state was chilling on a whole other level. I felt so convinced by Davis’ performance that I’m quite certain this is not only a horror film that uses mental illness as a plot device, it is fundamentally a film about mental illness. I suppose that’s one of those things you carry with you into a film, like an actor you don’t like only because they look like an ex-boyfriend or a jarring soundtrack when a director hasn’t personally accounted for your particular associations, but unlike other films which have had that effect on me The Babadook felt purposeful and stunningly well done. What if the dark thoughts that keep us awake at night and the bogeymen we convince ourselves are out to get us are going to follow us forever? What if we can’t get rid of the Babadook?
The Babadook is in cinemas today. Danni Glover is here.