Grief, like tooth decay, starts on the inside. Unseen, it has time to expand and grow. If not treated, it can damage or kill its host.
The Babadook, Australian Jennifer Kent’s directorial debut, is an intense psychological horror film, featuring a single mother and her six-year-old son. Amelia Vannick (Essie Davis) lost her husband in a car accident on the day her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) was born. She works as a nurse at a seniors’ home, and her son has begun to display disobedient behaviour in school and at home.
Amelia has an ongoing toothache, she can’t sleep well, and has little patience for her friends and neighbours. As Samuel begins to act more and more different, building and bringing violent contraptions to school and obsessing over monsters, her anxieties worsen.
One night, Amelia finds a book to read to Samuel, about a supernatural monster (the titular “Babadook”) that, once discovered, cannot be unseen or ignored. The story frightens Samuel and distresses Amelia, who ends up ripping the book and throwing it away. Samuel’s negative behaviour intensifies, including pushing his cousin out of a treehouse, and the family’s isolation deepens.
At Amelia’s insistence, a doctor prescribes medication to help Samuel sleep. Amelia gets her first proper night’s sleep in months, only to be woken up by a loud hammering on the front door, exactly as described in “The Babadook”. Amelia discovers the book she thought she had destroyed, reassembled and with additional pages, now taunting her and getting more specific and violent against her and her family. The monster then begins to show itself in greater and greater quantities, leading to a climactic final night showdown between the monster and the mother-son team.
A main theme of The Babadook is parenthood, and how it relates to single mothers dealing with the pressures of work, parenting, and making social appearances. Amelia is barely keeping her balance before the events of the film; as soon as Samuel’s behaviour degenerates, her keeping-it-together façade crumbles quickly. Her co-workers and boss notice her work slacking, her friends shun her, and she is barely keeping up with housework and being a mother to Samuel, to the dismay of two ornery Child Services individuals. At the end of the movie, I remember thinking about giving my parents a phone call and a big hug.
While parenthood is a major theme, and children and parents can both be monstrous at times, grief is the real monster that terrorizes the Vannick family. Amelia is never able to grieve properly for her dead husband, and keeps his photos, clothes, and memories sealed in a basement room. She rejects any mention of him, until Samuel’s curiosity about his father dredges everything up. One notices that The Babadook only stirs when Amelia or Samuel are thinking or talking about their missing family member.
The moral is, like a sore tooth, grief should not be ignored. It will only get worse. It is best to figure out a way to control it, to stop the spread, and reveal it to the light of day. Only then can it heal. And while one may never be able to fully eliminate grief, ignoring it will allow it to grow more and more powerful and overcome, while exposing it allows it to be controlled and managed.
Like with pain medication. Or a big bowl of worms.
Kent does an expert job of keeping the tension high while showing little of the monstrous Babadook. Creaking doors, open windows, flickering lights, and odd sounds are enough to make the viewer think of terrible possibilities for Amelia and Samuel. In the style of the best psychological thrillers, the viewer’s imagination conjures up much scarier thoughts than Kent can put on screen. She also uses many scenes from classic cartoons and scary movies, on her characters’ TV screens, to evoke a timeless and classic feeling to many of the more tense scenes.
On a small budget, directors of horror films are forced to invoke dread and fear without blood, gore, or explosions. Some struggle with this, and leave the viewer bored or underwhelmed. Kent, on the other hand, successfully pulls it off. Many moments leave the viewer on the edge of their seat, and some scares come quickly and surprisingly, rather than over a slow build, so one never knows of what, or whom, to be afraid.
Kent has written and directed a creative, unique, and at times darkly humorous take on the monster-in-the-family genre, and though it has struggled to gain major momentum in North America, should be added to the viewing list of any fan of horror films.
The Babadook is currently playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.
Chris Dagonas is a Toronto-based teacher and writer who also writes for Same Page Team, a sports and pop culture website with a Toronto focus.