In The Babadook (2014; dir. Jennifer Kent) a supernatural entity from a child’s picture book terrorizes a mother and her young son. The film follows a typical formula: small events lead to larger ones, and finally a climactic moment. The Babadook itself never directly appears—we hear its voice (repeating the words “Babadook”) and see its shadow, or the outline of its form. Although the film was shot in color, you cannot tell. It might as well be in black and white, and murky low-light black and white at that. The lights often go out in the young mother’s apartment, but even when they are on I wanted her to turn on more lights. The darkness supposedly contributes to the atmosphere of doubt and confusion and uncertainty but mostly it makes for irritation.
The interesting core of this film is the mother, Amelia (Essie Davis) and her child Robbie (Daniel Henshall). Amelia’s husband was apparently killed seven years before the time of the action in a car wreck as he drove her to the hospital to have their son. She lives her entire life in the remembered shadow of that event and associates her son with her husband’s death. She’s lonely, sexually deprived, and overwhelmed both by her desire to care for Robbie and her sense that he is suffocating her. She is both loving and hateful to him, at times abusive. In one scene she tries to strangle him. He probably suffers from autism or Asperger’s syndrome. At any rate, he has serious behavioral problems and is demanding and clingy. He loves his mother in an obsessive way and often tells her that he doesn’t want her to be disappear, he doesn’t want her to die, as if he can see something that might be coming in the future. In a number of scenes, he’s clearly afraid of her. Even without the Babadook, the household is claustrophobic, oppressive, and deadly.
It’s possible that the Babadook is a psychological, psychosexual manifestation of Amelia’s tormented state, that it’s not present in the film at all except in her mind. The child believes in Babadook, but does he believe because he is fueled by his mother’s strained mental state, or because Babadook is really there? Both mother and child are descendants of characters in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.
A serious flaw in this film is the lack of sympathy one feels for mother and child. Neither is particularly endearing. We feel sorry for the mother’s plight, her loneliness and her difficulties with her son, yet she lives in a world where help is available for people with problems such as the ones she faces, and even without help one would expect her to bear up better than she does. And the boy is, frankly, selfish and irritating and obnoxious. One can understand why Amelia feels about him as she does.
Whether the Babadook is real or not, the horror of the film emanates from the lives of the entrapped mother and son.
The Babadook is not as frightening as the trailer would suggest, and although the psychological dimension elevates it among many others in its category, it is not the first to suggest that horror is a product of the human mind. It doesn’t suck you in, leave you gripping your chair in suspense as you wait for the next frightening moment. It’s more of an endurance test. Moreover, here we have another film that blames a woman’s hysteria for problems that occur.
Essie Davis does an admirable job as the tormented and unlikeable mother, and one must credit as well director Jennifer Kent for her skillful if not wholly successful effort to move outside the usual bounds of the supernatural horror genre in this film.