Horror is such a unique weapon in film’s arsenal. It’s easy to justify romance, drama, action, or comedy. You can always say, “I need more love or excitement or laughter in my life.” How many times have you heard someone say, “I need more fear in my life?”
Fear is uncomfortable. It’s not attractive.
You will never read about the hero who taught all the townspeople to fear a little bit more. Yet it’s a hugely influential part of human psychology that increases our awareness when we’re in danger and tells us not to do profoundly stupid things. It’s just one of the infinitely varied impulses that tie us to reality, and it needs to be cultivated and explored like the rest. It’s not a matter of choosing to experience fear or not. We will all experience moments of paralyzing, all-encompassing terror, whether the threat is real or just a weird noise in a dark room. Art, and even good entertainment, is there to prepare us for when that happens.
Which brings me to The Babadook, an Australian import from writer/director Jennifer Kent and the best pure horror film in years. It’s a fairly simple riff on the haunted house formula. Amelia, a single mother (Essie Davis) and her cloying six-year-old child Samuel (Noah Wiseman) discover what seems to be a children’s popup book in the house. “If it’s in a word or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook,” it chimes over rounded drawings like Dr. Seuss filtered through the lens of Tim Burton. Page by page the contents reveal themselves to be more sinister. Amelia doesn’t notice until it’s too late — the page that reads “and you’ll wish you were dead!” to be precise — and she’s helplessly reciting a nursery rhyme while Samuel screams in terror.
And sure enough the Babadook is coming. The child knows it right away. The adult remains in denial; neither the tap-tap-tapping on the door, nor the way the book keeps reappearing on the mat when she throws it out, nor the phantasmal bugs that sneak in from behind the fridge will convince her otherwise. You can’t exactly blame Amelia. She’s exhausted from working an unrewarding job at a nursing home, keeping a house up all by herself, and taking care of a boy who breaks everything he touches and sneaks weapons to school in his backpack when she’s not looking.
The world these characters inhabit is a harsh one in ways entirely unrelated to the existence of rhyming demonic spirits. Amelia is more or less shunned by her sister and all the other women her age because her plight is depressing to them. Time and time again her duties as a parent stand in the way of her desire for love, stability, and acceptance. Samuel has been identified as a problem child at his school, and the principal won’t even refer to him by name. When he freaks out in a possessed fit, Amelia cries out for help to onlookers on the street. They all cast judgmental glares, trying to decide if her pleas are legitimate. Even the police and the doctor are doubtful that anything she’s saying is true. It’s far easier to judge her as a bad mother and a bad person than to find some way to help.
The only person who is by Amelia’s side no matter what is her clingy, screechy, overbearing offspring. It’s a jealous, dependent, demanding love. He hugs her, but he hugs too hard and hurts her. He builds a catapult “to protect her” and winds up breaking a window. He wakes her up in the middle of the night, causing her to sleep through her alarm and miss work. Exhausted and alone, she desperately tries to ignore that most horrifying of possibilities. For a film with phenomenal art design and some truly creepy frights, the unspoken contempt of a parent for her child is by far the most unnerving thing on display.
The best horror films all touch upon something universally unsettling. Classics like The Shining or Rosemary’s Baby examined unchecked hatred and paranoia that were even more terrifying because the audience found themselves relating. Even in classics like Targets or The Exorcist, where the darkness was too large or terrifying to comprehend, the horror came from the hero’s helplessness in the face of disaster. Compare all of this to The Conjuring, the hyper-successful horror blockbuster from 2013. That too featured a dark spirit that unleashed itself upon a family to cause dissent; but evil there wasn’t some relatable human emotion gone awry. The possessing spirit was decidedly abstract evil that could be countered with some notion of abstract good. There were heroes whose sole job was to help people in need. The oppressed family had seemingly no problems besides the satanic forces besetting them. And the police and the church were always present to back them up. It was the horror equivalent of a superhero film.
I’m not saying that horror films cannot be positive and uplifting, but how often have you been truly scared while surrounded by trusted friends? The perpetual reassurances in films like The Conjuring don’t exist when we’re most alone. They serve only as quick shock scares and are forgotten as soon as we leave the theater. The Babadook lingers because it asks the audience to confront some of the loneliest, most discomfiting emotions that people encounter in real life. It relates to the loner, to the problem child, to the harried parent who sticks their kid in front of the TV because that migraine just won’t go away. Love and contempt, it argues, are two pages in the same gruesome, morally neutral popup book. True horror is not about burying fear under positive sentiments and reassurances. It’s about cultivating it into something useful. As you may have noticed, hiding never does much good in these films.
I don’t mean to detract from the film’s pure genre elements. There are a million qualities to horror that have nothing to do with how interesting or truthful it is. As a genre fan I’m not above watching for cool kills, exciting set pieces, or impressive creature design. I could probably have spent the full review examining The Babadook’s nervy, unsettled shooting style or sumptuous gothic artwork. It looks like it was shot for ten times its budget. It’s also absolutely terrifying. Nothing I’ve said made any difference to me during the film because I was too busy cringing and reeling at every unsettling development. However, there is fun, disposable horror, and then there’s horror that lasts. Unlike some very exciting, very nice looking films, The Babadook has all the makings of a cult classic that will live to scare again for generations.
Photos courtesy of: Cinetic Media