Even with the horror genre’s immense popularity, the films are still divisive; you’re either a “horror fan” or you’re not. Trends in horror often involve pushing the envelope, which typically means increased gore and violence. Currently, the pendulum has swung away from the “torture porn” subgenre (popularized by the Saw franchise) to its polar opposite, haunting and possession films. The beauty of these movies is in their subtlety; often they lack any real gore or violence, choosing to focus on internal struggles of characters instead. The Conjuring (2013) is one of the best examples of this movement; The Babadook is a very close second.
The Babadook centers on Amelia, who lost her husband when their car crashed on the way to the hospital to give birth to their son, Samuel, six years ago. Amelia and Samuel have scraped out a meager, mundane existence, as Amelia merely goes through the motions of life working in a nursing home, while Sam lives in a fantasy world as a magician and monster hunter. Sam’s increasingly aggressive behavioral problems, constant need of attention, and insomnia are stretching Amelia beyond her limits. After a particularly trying day, mother and son tuck in to read a macabre bedtime story: Mister Babadook. It seems as if Sam’s fears have now taken the shape of a giant Nosferatu/Caligari-esque creature, in a top hat and coat with long black claws, which haunts mother and son night and day.
The beauty of Babadook’s meticulous, well-paced descent is the shifting back and forth between mother and son as target for the creature and representation of the villain itself. Writer/director Jennifer Kent so artfully crafts the escalation of dread that by the climax, you really just need it to be over to get some relief. The film is about tension, sadness, and a very real kind of fear (albeit supernatural in manifestation), so she stays away from trite jump-scares. Essie Davis gives a terrific performance as Amelia; the subtleties in her acting are a rare treat. The art direction and cinematography are fantastic, which are incredibly important for haunting films (because they largely take place in one location); the shadowy blue-grey hues of Amelia and Sam’s house and world set the tone for not only their psychological states, but also give the Babadook plenty of places to lurk.
The best horror films are the ones that use the genre to address some taboo aspect of the human condition. Writers and directors often sneak highbrow ideas into a category of films that are seen as lowbrow. Night of the Living Dead addresses race in 1960s America; Psycho is about Freudian psychosexual theory; The Exorcist considers the loss of faith in modern society. The Babadook really has very little to do with a demonic entity; it expresses the unspoken regrets and resentment of parenthood, and postpartum mental illnesses that fester when left untreated. Motherhood has been elevated to such a sacred state in Western society that anyone who isn’t enjoying it and presenting the perfect picture is demoralized. The societal pressures of how mothers are supposed to behave can be crippling, especially when dealing with grief and a troubled child. Kent has beautifully articulated this struggle in a film that is genuinely scary and moving.