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Fear the thing that knocks in the night: “The Babadook”

October 7, 2014

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Children’s books are terrifying, aren’t they? I don’t know about the ones they write today, but the ones I had to read a kid seemed designed solely to impress upon children that the Universe is a cold, merciless place, and that there’s just as deep and black of a void inside all our hearts. I mean, we had the Shel Silverstein books which were a wonderful way to introduce kids to the concept of LSD (here are some insipid rhymes, stark drawings, and a backflap photo of the author who looks like he should be roaming the desert in his VW van in search of “fresh offerings”). Or, when I was a bit younger, my parents bought me a Dr. Seuss book called Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are, in which the doc seems to be trying to assuage his white guilt (and possibly the guilt over all those racist Japanese propaganda tracts he drew in World War 2) by inventing whimsical horrific circumstances you should be glad you don’t have to deal with. Because children are never too young to learn about existential terror. But the titular book in the tremendously satisfying Australian horror film, The Babadook, is terrifying in a more direct way: it forecasts your despoilment and tragic death.

The Babadook drops into the gloomy world of struggling single-mother Amelia (Essie Davis), a caregiver at a retirement home, who is living just a bit beyond hand-to-mouth while trying to raise her six year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Samuel is going through what one review referred to as his “shrill phase,” but in my humble (non-child-afflicted) opinion would be better described as his “Officer, I just can’t understand how he squeezed through the bars of that lion cage…oh, if only it hadn’t been feeding time…wow, you have nice muscles,” phase.

Samuel is borderline sociopathic. He builds weapons—including a backpack catapult—which he brings to school and uses against the other students. He inadvertently pushes his cousin out of a treehouse, sending her plummeting a good fifteen feet to the ground. He even has spells in which he just screams and kicks the back of his mom’s car seat long past when my dad would have made good on his oft-issued threat to “pull this car over and really give you something to cry about.”

Is it legal to tase your kids? It's gotta be, right?

Is it legal to tase your kids? It’s gotta be, right?

Poor Amelia must deal with this hellion alone, as her husband died rushing to the hospital when she went into labor. His death weighs heavily upon them both, with Amelia scrabbling to get by (while her wealthier, non-widowed sister regards her with barely-concealed pity), and Sammy builds shrines to his deceased father. Because the kid is the spawn of Satan.

To her credit, writer/director Jennifer Kent doesn’t make Amelia an endlessly-doting helicopter parent. Instead, she’s stressed and sleepless, and at the end of her rope, at one point screaming at Samuel “Why can’t you just be normal?”  One sympathizes.

This is a child crying out for Ritalin.

This is a child crying out for Ritalin.

One night, while searching a book to read as a bedtime story, Samuel chooses s strange book from his shelf neither of them have seen before. It’s a too-large, black-bound pop-up book called Mister Babadook, which tells the story of a horrible monster called the Babadook, who announces its presence before infecting the soul of unwary parents. And then the horror begins. All of this is rendered in terrifying illustrations (created for the film by Alex Juhusz).

Still less scary than the illustrations in 'Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.'"

Still less scary than the illustrations in ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.'”

Well, this freaks both of them out, so Amelia gets rid of the book—going so far as to burn it—but the book doesn’t stay dead. Soon enough it’s back on her doorstep. And then, at night, a voice growls “Baaabaaadook…”

I won’t say anymore, because you really should check out this movie, because it’s a winner. On a purely literal level, The Babadook is a great horror film, with a glum, creepy setting in Amelia’s run down farm house, deep, inky-black shadows, and long, excruciating scenes that slide up the scale from suspenseful to downright terrifying.

This is not going to end well.

This is not going to end well.

But beyond that, Jennifer Kent keeps the film suffused with an unsettling sense of a world askew. Is Samuel just acting out, or is there something worse going on in that tow-headed little noggin of his? Is Amelia really bedeviled by the supernatural or is she succumbing to the pressure of underemployment and trying to raise a child that he has simply lost the ability to understand and control?

Likewise, Kent—adapting her short film Monster—has a knowing sensibility about her main character. Amelia’s travails are so effective, because she is so well-realized. Much of this is due to Essie Davis’s superb performance. But Kent also brings a great deal of insight about the thorny, imperfect, and flawed ways of parental love, and the non-supernatural horror at realizing that sometimes you do not love your kid (especially this little terrorist).

The Babadook finally brings us a fully-formed horror film. It’s not just a premise played out with some decent special effects. It’s not even a scary story that keeps you at the edge f your seat. It’s those things built off of a foundation of the everyday terrors that inhabit the human heart.

Here’s hoping gets a decent theatrical or VOD release soon.

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