In honor of Women in Horror Month, this week for Friday Fight, the gang went back and revisited Jennifer Kent’s 2014 feature debut The Babadook.
If you haven’t seen it, The Babadook concerns one Amelia (Essie Davis), a widow whose husband is killed in a car accident while driving her to the hospital to deliver their son, Samuel. Amelia has never gotten this, and walks around in a cloud of grief, exhaustion and resentment towards her son. It’s hard to blame her for that though, as the kid is skin-crawlingly annoying, and ceaselessly needy. Things aren’t going all that well for Amelia to begin with, but they really start to go south when Amelia reads Samuel a bedtime story that just happens to show up on the bookshelf, called Mister Babadook. It’s about a kind of boogeyman who makes his way into your house to possess you. Then things get REALLY bad when first Samuel starts seeing the Babadook, and then Amelia begins to fall under its power.
As far as monsters go, the Babadook is top notch. A stiff, deeply unsettling presence that’s never fully shown. A shadowy figure with prickly outstretched fingers that remind me of the sensation of needles on the back of my neck. The horror of the Babadook comes from the Familiar made Other. It exists in the dark corners of the domestic space; the vague disquiet that hangs on the periphery of the familiar. It’s not really much of a spoiler to say that the Babadook is going after the child through his mother. And that’s why the film works so well; Kent sets up her audience to identify with Amelia, then makes her the instrument of that horror in the shadows, as if to suggest that that which we should fear the most is our own selves.
Kent’s a strong director, and she shows a deep knowledge of horror cinema. One of the pleasures of The Babadook for me, was watching the way she pulls from German Expressionism by way of Ozploitation. There’s as much of Richard Franklin’s Patrick in here as there is Dr. Caligari. And underneath the genre mechanics there’s a lot that resonated with me on repeated viewings. The film’s psychology is the pulpy Freudian stuff of horror cinema, but the feelings of loss, the all-consuming depression, the weary looks of resentment at her son Samuel; that stuff rings true.
BLAINE MCLAREN: In 2014, I caught a little Australian flick called The Babadook and I was all about his film. My first viewing was tense and I bought into the film… hook, line and sinker. I hadn’t seen it since that first viewing and I was curious to get back to it. Once I was about an hour in I realized something alarming, I don’t think I like this movie anymore. Could this be true? Unfortunately, it is and I am bummed out about it.
That first viewing of the film works in a strange way. It wraps you up in the tension and forces you to overlook a lot of the hokey, ham-fisted bullshit. Once you know where it is going, you are off the hook and left to see this film, warts and all. Don’t get me wrong, there is some real talent on display here. Jennifer Kent has a natural ability to build tension and an eye for drama. It is still impressive when we are in the third act and the camera is (literally) chasing the characters throughout the home. Beyond that, this turned out to be a dud for me upon 2nd viewing.
I wish it wasn’t true and I wish that there was more substance here than just someone cramming grief metaphors down my throat. I assume that Jennifer Kent had very good intentions (given the material), but it comes off very college-student level of “deep”. After the final shot, I expected Rod Serling to step out and ask if “grief was the real monster”? I don’t say all of this to tell anyone to avoid this film. if you have seen it and enjoyed it, then leave it that way. Not all films are meant to be watched more than once.
ANA BYRD: When I first viewed Jennifer Kent’s debut film, The Babadook, back when it was released, I was very impressed. It’s a film full of psychological terror and an atmosphere of growing dread. I think what I liked most about the film was how it plays upon the the sometime terrors of childhood and particularly motherhood. My husband and I are not parents, but If I lost him, and then was forced to raise our difficult child alone… well, I might have gone a little crazy myself. That lack of sleep and slow building crazy in Amelia seems to intensify every little insecurity of Sam culminating in the night that they read The Babadook. At this point, they can’t shake the creature, much like I couldn’t shake this movie for days after.
JACOB GEHMAN: I’ve never been good at picking out subtext in film, in finding the hidden meaning behind ideas and themes that aren’t obviously thrust in the face of a viewer. This inability to connect the dots leaves me at a critical disadvantage, certainly, though doesn’t always inhibit my inability to enjoy a film. I’ve discovered, for example, a deep love of Luis Buñuel despite not understanding most of the deeper concepts he riffs on. In the case of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, I can see some of these themes as they cycle in and out of the story, I just can’t figure out how they’re cohesive within the narrative.
The first time I watched The Babadook I wasn’t even aware that I was missing subtext–I just knew I disliked it. Even as I was impressed by some of the elements and aesthetics, I found the whole experience lacking. This time through I was able to hone in on what elements failed to connect with me and, spoiler, it has very little to do with subtext.
1. I mostly find children to be irritating. That’s probably not a popular thing to admit, but during the first hour of the film, six-year-old Sam is about as irritating as a child can be. His character is well acted by Noah Wiseman and makes sense within the narrative, it’s just–when I look at reasons why I don’t want children, loud, impulsive, disobedient kids like Sam are the resounding answer. I lack the patience in real life, and I also lack the patience in cinema.
2. The pacing is weird. It’s one of those films where every time I checked how much time had elapsed, I was constantly overestimating. When I thought at least a half hour had passed, only ten minutes had. When I thought I was closing in on the finale, I was still only halfway through. It’s not even a slow burn film–there is constantly something happening. It’s stressful from the get-go, a tension Kent layers and textures without letting the narrative twiddle its thumbs. Yet, somehow, it still drags. The only thing I can figure is that Sam’s presence is so impactful that he literally slows time. I’ve done some babysitting in my life and know how a kid can make a half an hour feel like an hour.
I can see how someone who doesn’t abhor children and who didn’t ever feel the need to check the runtime would come away from The Babadook feeling pretty positive about the experience. More power to them, but that’s definitely not me.
Salim Garami returns as our guest on Friday Fight. At this point, he may not be a guest much longer!
Salim’s work can be read at Movie Motorbreath.
I’m gonna keep this as short as possible, partly because I’m crushed for time, partly because I already gave my immediate full thoughts on The Babadook, and largely because I’m damned if I think I can say anything really new about one of the most-acclaimed horror movies of the decade thus far because if you’re expecting me to go against the grain here, you’ll be disappointed. It’s rock-solid genre filmmaking, especially from a first-timer in Jennifer Kent, with its interiors and dark shadows to provide shape to a being that may not even be in the shot in the first place and the oh sooooo tired way the home of Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) barely pulls together, same as their relationship. I’m REALLY not saying anything new in calling out the very direct and raw way it deals with grief – showcasing how the death of Amelia’s husband and Samuel’s father fucked with the psychological and emotional states of each character – but I might do well to point out that the movie also is a lot more cutting about motherhood in a way that only a woman director could be, I think. There’s no fantasies, no euphemisms, it’s tiring and it sucks and it’s petulant and it’s petty and it’s embarrassing. There’s rage struggling inside of Amelia and confusion in Samuel and their violently strained relationship could already do for a horribly miserable domestic character study, except Kent wants to incorporate the corporeal manifestation of their pain in the form of the Babadook.
And again, it’s a damn good horror film. The usually awful Sundance releases have for the past few years proven to be outstanding – The Witch, Under the Shadow, Get Out – and it all started with The Babadook showing how its done as far as I see and none of those films were any better than The Babadook. In its use of frame peripherals to mess with subjectivity, in its design to darken audience spirits with its characters as a visual arc, and in the design of that fucking book that I regret never purchasing for myself. That it lacks any real gore or body count is just something that I never bothered noticing and using that as a complaint rather than a recognizing what that represents in its ability to have stakes without violence (like Cinemassacre did last year to my annoyance) is just insane to me. It’s not perfect by any means (e.g. it suffers from Home Alone third act horror movie syndrome that I see alike in movies I love – A Nightmare on Elm Street – and hate – You’re Next), but it’s a champion debut work and a highlight of possibly my favorite movie year I’ve lived through.
[Editor’s Note: I didn’t get to rewatch the film this week, nor did Garrett. Which is regrettable. Garrett’s quick take from his original viewing is below. I, on the other hand, and sitting this one out for the first time. As you can read, I left you all in good hands. Smarter minds than mine had more interesting things to say than me anyway.]
GARRETT SMITH: This movie was really great. A fantastic, scary monster movie that’s not really about monsters, but is actually about dealing with loss. The acting is great, the film making is pretty great – I liked the framing of a lot of the static shots that just set the tone, mood, and atmosphere. The ending was really great and all about how we have to feed our past a little bit, because we can’t escape it. We have to feed into it, just a little, to go on moving forward. Otherwise it will drive us mad and kill us.