In the subgenre of mother horror, The Babadook deserves mention among the likes of Rosemary’s Baby, Dark Water and The Conjuring. For a debut feature – from writer-director Jennifer Kent – it mines maternal fears with alarming precision.
To be honest, the movie will be just as disturbing for fathers. The repeated refrain of the exhausted mother at its center – “I just need to sleep” – is something I’ve said many times after multiple nights of diaper changes/high temperatures/nightmares. The Babadook is about the dark side that any bone-weary parent can sometimes feel creeping up within.
The movie centers on Amelia (Essie Davis), a single mother whose husband died a few years earlier. In fact, he was killed in a car accident on the way to the hospital for the birth of their son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who is now a little boy suffering from frequent night terrors. This has left Amelia at a loss and short on sleep, always a precarious position for a parent. In fact, the scariest moment in the film might be the least supernatural, as Amelia lies spent on her bed and Samuel comes in asking for supper. Her face is in the foreground while Samuel’s figure is in the background, and we see her sighs growing in fury until they build to an abusive outburst.
This comes after Amelia and Samuel have unwisely read a creepy pop-up book called Mister Babadook, about a specter that threatens to infiltrate and dominate your home. Samuel wholeheartedly believes, and indeed strange things begin happening. Yet we also understand that the Babadook is a stand-in for Amelia’s psychological specters, from her grief over her husband to her resentment toward Samuel to her feelings of helplessness as a parent.
The scariest moment in the film might be the least supernatural.
Davis is wonderful in a role that straddles the line between horror heroine and monster. She’s able to be empathetic or threatening at exactly the right moments. And her climactic showdown with the Babadook is an alarming burst of maternal ferocity, the full fury of a woman defending her child against her own psychological demons.
Kent, meanwhile, shows real flair as a filmmaker, able to handle the horror conventions (much of the action is nicely timed to cut on sudden silence) and bring a macabre sense of humor to the genre. At one point Amelia flees to a restaurant for some peace and quiet, only to be seated next to a table of screaming children. Later, there’s a shot near the end involving the family dog that’s a darkly comic riff on the opening scene of Blue Velvet.
Kent also distinguishes herself as a horror filmmaker who knows how to stick the landing, which is always a challenge for the genre. Rather than a completely happy conclusion or the obligatory last-minute shock, The Babadook ends on a note of eerie acceptance. Psychological issues may be managed, the movie suggests, but they never truly disappear.