It’s exciting as a genre fan to find a horror movie that’s also ABOUT something. Just a little old-school subtext, something to chew on beyond the grisly effects and ear-splitting jump scares, goes a long way in this genre: the social commentary of George A Romero’s Dead films; the political satire of John Carpenter’s They Live; the divorce drama at the heart of David Cronenberg’s The Brood. These were moments in horror that stood out, back when we were hungrily devouring any gorefest we could get our hands on. These movies all had something to say, and they all played key roles in opening our horror-happy minds to the larger world of filmmaking and storytelling. These were the movies that endured, and rightly became classics. So when something like writer/director Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook comes along, proudly flaunting its allegory, enthusiasm understandably follows. And even if that film has moments where it stops transcending the horror sandbox to simply play in it, viewers still come out ahead.
The Babadook is the latest worthy addition to the subgenre of “parental horror.” Where Rosemary’s Baby played upon the primal fear of an expectant mother, where Don’t Look Now explored the unpredictable anguish of grieving parents and The Brood presented a bitter custody battle through Cronenberg’s unique prism, The Babadook is a nightmare born of single parenting, of survivor’s guilt, and of the repressed anger toward a child taking over one’s life. The audaciously stripped-down horror story focuses on Amelia (Essie Davis), a widowed mother dealing with the escalating behavioral problems of her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Samuel's dad is seven years dead, killed in a car accident while driving Amelia to the delivery room. Today Amelia is absolutely beleaguered, her face a map of pale, lonely exhaustion. Making it to bed at the end of each day is nothing less than a triumph, albeit a Sisyphean one. But Samuel will not give her a moment’s peace. Screaming fits, breaking shit with ingenious homemade weapons, hurting other kids during playdates, barging into her room while Amelia is just trying to get one lonely orgasm in before bedtime. Samuel kind of sucks. Even his affections seem to suffocate Amelia; Kent cannily directs Samuel’s embraces to look a whole lot like strangleholds. Kent and her star Davis do a masterful job of balancing the complex, messy blend of love and resentment Amelia feels toward her son. By portraying the boy as equally endearing and maddening, Kent expertly places us in Amelia’s conflicted, exhausted shoes. When Samuel discovers a pop-up book called Mister Babadook, its scary imagery and titular monster turn up his behavioral problems exponentially. But soon Amelia is seeing evidence that maybe the kid isn’t simply the victim of an overactive imagination, and that something in the dark blue shadows of their home presents a very real, tangible threat to them both.
It’s allegory writ large, every bit the crackling children’s pop-up book featured in the film. Amelia’s grief, guilt and anger towards her dead husband have all been squashed down in the name of being a good mom, and as she denies her own dark feelings, inky black shapes work their way out of the closets and corners of the house, often revealing themselves in ways that are so matter-of-fact as to border on banal. The moments of supernatural menace aren’t accompanied by the same tired telegraphy as a lot of current horror, and it feels fresh.
As the book tells her, “the more you ignore me, the stronger I get.” Soon Mister Babdook is taking a humanoid, Edward Gorey-esque shape, equal parts children’s nightmare and Coffin Joe cosplay. The eponymous boogeyman, like any children’s book monster, is nearly rendered silly when too much light hits it. Thankfully, the monster’s evolution involves a sort of re-internalization, and some rich thematic material is mined as Amelia has to literally confront the monster within herself, with Samuel’s unsolicited help. The bulk of the film is a two-person show, and Davis and Wiseman are both terrific, expertly (and in Wiseman’s case, preternaturally) navigating an arc that takes their characters from antagonists to allies to adversaries, both of them in a fight for their lives to defeat the hateful evil living inside their home.
The finale takes a step toward the literal, and for some this will be a disappointment. My feeling is that we are watching a horror film, after all. It was always going to be literal. What makes it a cut above the rest is all that great metaphorical stuff along the way. And if the borderline traditional third act is a letdown, the ship is more than righted by the film’s closing moments. The Babadook has an ending that is unexpected, and will surely resonate with any viewer trying to figure out how to make peace with the inextricable, darker sides of themselves. The film snaps back to allegory long enough for a potent, sober parting thought: maybe we can't always conquer our demons. Sometimes we have to learn how to live with them.