The Babadook: A spooky film that succeeds when it’s not trying to scare you

Mediocre films leave you with a message; brilliant films leave you with a feeling. There are enough moments of sustained brilliance in The Babadook to convince us that director Jennifer Kent knows what it takes to make a great film, but the fact that she conforms to the trite tropes of the horror genre in the final act means that her debut feature stops short of being masterly. It’s a classic case of a filmmaker knowing her strengths, but not believing in them enough.

The film opens with Amelia, a middle-aged widow, and her six-year-old son, Samuel, living in a sparse, dank house that appears to have no life-affirming qualities — an eerie listlessness hangs in the air at all times and gives the impression that all trace of life has been deliberately snuffed out from the place. Its inhabitants are not living as much as they are surviving. We slowly begin to understand why. Six years ago, Amelia’s husband was driving his pregnant wife to the hospital. They met with a road accident on the way. The husband died. The mother and their child survived. In Amelia’s house, only one thing truly thrums with life: guilt, the guilt of having survived.

But, sadly, that’s not it. Something is not quite right with Samuel. For a six-year-old, he has an unhealthy fascination with monsters, unwittingly hurting himself and other kids of his age. Samuel is also quite the brat at most times, frequently breaking into loud cries of torment. Amelia isn’t the epitome of a doting mother either. She can tolerate her son’s antics only up to a point. The conflicted mother-son relationship reminded me of Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk to Kevin(2011), which was also a film about the nature vs nurture debate (are some people born evil?); a mother feeling guilty about not being motherly enough.

Amelia has trouble sleeping. At night, she lies frozen on her bed, pulls the comforter over her eyes, hoping something will lull her to sleep. Nothing does. These bits in the film — a housewife unable to get over her deceased husband; a childhood rendered incomplete in the absence of a father figure; the slow isolation of the mother and son from their social circle — are more scary than most sub-standard horror films, where elements of film form are debased to serve petty, transient moments of fright. The Babadook is genuinely scary even before its eponymous ghost has made an entry.

The Babadook

The Babadook, however, is no ordinary ghost; its ability to alternately posses both the mother and child bring their dark, suppressed truths to the fore. Samuel accuses his mother of killing his father; the mother, in turn, lashes out at her son later, saying, “How many times I wanted you to die instead of my husband.” The Babadook, then, in that case, may not be unequivocally evil. It’s just helping these human beings, crippled with dark desires, become monsters with ease. Do you need to be possessed to be a monster? The Babadook keeps asking this question of its characters and, consequently, of us, making it a disturbing and riveting watch.

The Babadook begins to falter when it sees itself as a “horror” film. Nothing terribly wrong with that, but it suffers from the same flaws as many other films of this genre have in the past. Formulaic scenes such as Amelia waking up with a start, lamps flashing intermittently, the bed shaking violently, leave the film shorn of novelty. It also becomes, for a brief while, tedious and repetitive. You wonder what prompted this sudden change in tone.

But the film is redeemed to a large extent by its final scene, rich in disturbing implications as to the ultimate fate of Amelia and Samuel.

At one point, when Amelia gets tired of keeping up with the monster, she finally lashes out at The Babadook, throwing at it a question she could have well have asked of herself: “What do you want?”

Who, really, has the answer to that?

The review was first published at The Sunday Guardian

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