You can’t get rid of the Babadook
The Babadook: a goofy word that gives no hint of meaning. Is it a monster? An emotion? Both? Its definition is what viewers will ultimately be seeking when they sit down to watch this nonconventional horror film. The movie focuses intimately on characters who are struggling through deep, complex emotions that never feel forced. The Babadook also utilizes brilliant sound design, as well as a nothing-to-hide approach in order to instill a genuine sense of dread in its audience. Though the film does employ a few cliches, they don’t stand in the way of the viewers enjoyment during their time inside the well-realized house of horror.
The film builds tension early on as it takes the audience through the daily life of the single and widowed Amelia as she deals with her unruly son Sam. The excellent sound design is used immediately to put the viewer on edge as they are berated by the high shrills of Sam’s outbursts. His presence on the screen becomes draining to both Amelia and the audience, and it allows the viewers to sympathize with her strife. Even though the monster is not revealed until later in the movie, the pace never feels slow because the characters are presented in an empathetic way. Horror movies tend to bog themselves down with character development away from the ultimate terror they must deal with at home, but The Babadook avoids this entirely as the exposition serves to reflect the inner psyche and the outside circumstances that help shape the audience’s understanding of the characters. This is especially important for the film because the subject matter is abstract and metaphorical.
Amelia and Sam are confined to their house because Sam has been kicked out of school and Amelia succumbs to insomnia. Like most horror movies, the house itself is a character, and the residence in The Babadook is brilliant. Filmed without any gels or post-production enhancement, the home feels cold and claustrophobic. This is due to a steel blue color scheme that is highlighted with sterile whites, as well as clutter that is strung about the house. Camera shots always place the characters close to the audience and the rest of the house is almost always in view, augmenting the fact that the house is small. Like the characters on screen, the audience realizes the small house only brings the monster closer.
The plot really starts to unfold when Amelia reads her son a bedtime story titled “The Babadook”. The omens presented in the text begin to unravel Amelia’s sanity, revealing her inner struggle against the grief she has never resolved concerning her dead husband. This emotional struggle is the backbone of the film, and provides context for the audience as the narrative moves forward. The audience goes from sympathizing with her, to feeling her confusion, to ultimately rooting against her.
The transition is brought about by escalating odd-happenings and harassment from– while remaining spoiler free –the monster. The sense of dread is further bolstered by sinister clips of old black and white cartoons, early 20th century horror movies, and off-putting news reports that Amelia watches for hours. What’s great is the movie doesn’t tread on overused ground by making the coercive force a ghost or a demon or a curse. The Babadook asks the audience instead to decide if it is none of those things are all of them at once.
When it comes to representing the malignance that has entered the characters’ lives, The Babadook chooses to not rely on cheap scare tactics and instead confronts the viewers directly. Once again, masterful sound work is used in the screaming voices of Sam and Amelia, and when their yells are altered, it never goes too far into cliche demon-speak. One scene in particular put every hair on my body at full attention due to the terrifying nature of a single voice through a telephone.
Finally, when the viewers come face to face with what the characters are struggling against, the image is inescapable. The Babadook doesn’t try to string the audience along with mere glimpses, and it doesn’t rely on shock value to scare you. The aesthetic of the monster is that of a 1950s B-movie, which is refreshing amongst the standard ghosts and demons of modern horror films. The threat stands plainly in front of you, allowing you to soak it in, and forces you to deal with its terror alongside the characters.
Without giving too much away, the only downside to The Babadook is that it does employ a few standard horror tropes. However, in one instance a standard cliche is given new meaning in the context of this film, and is actually used as an allegory for the consequences of Amelia’s actions. Unfortunately, the few other cliches do not garner a creative explanation for their use. Yet, pointing out these shortcomings seems nitpicky compared to the excellent sense of dread and the metaphorical take on inner struggle that The Babadook presents.
What makes The Babadook so special is its inspiration. This movie is not another telling of a possession, curse, or random haunting. Instead, it illuminates the struggle real people have between tough emotions and the way they deal with them. The film executes a feeling of claustrophobia through its house design, which traps viewers inside with the characters; uses sound design to put the audience on edge; and when it comes time to face the terror, it forces you to do so head-on. Even though a small number of cliches appeared, it wasn’t enough to hinder the ultimate question the audience must face: what is the Babadook and where is mine?
Edited by Malia Hamilton