With the new year approaching, we celebrate our films of 2014. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook is up.
Veiled beneath the mighty shadow of 2014’s greatest films sits a haunting silhouette. It belongs to The Babadook. It may not be draped in the general public’s adoration (yet), and it’s doubtful the film will straight sweep the Oscars, but much like its malevolent bogeyman, The Babadook will always be lurking in the corner of our hearts, ready to play a prominent feature within any conversation regarding this year’s best movies. Its seat in the darkness only adds to its charm (albeit a twisted, nightmarish charm). Where it may have lacked in budget by comparison, it has craftily amplified its content tenfold, to a point where we as an audience are treated to a fresh take on a genre all too recently riddled with sequels, prequels, spin-offs and convolution.
Born in the suitably dangerous Land Down Under, The Babadook is a unique foray into frightful imagery and personality
Stood upon a pedestal beyond its contemporaries, The Babadook utilises cast and technique in a way that arguably hasn’t been seen in decades. Just as the 80s slasher movement’s soundtracks still ring in our ears, so too will every wonderfully imagined trope of this dreary tale. From the antagonist’s ominous three knocks, all the way through to the haunting children’s book that kick starts the terror, The Babadook’s simplicity will stick forever with we who’ve experienced the film, and will continue to do so long after we’ve gorged ourselves on the more complex character relationships through which it’s grounded.
But first, the Babadook himself (itself?). Great creature design has been lacking in recent years; British affairs Attack the Block, Creep and The Descent all lead the pack by a lofty margin in regards to impressive horror antagonist aesthetic. Now, at last, born in the suitably dangerous Land Down Under, The Babadook is another unique foray into frightful imagery and personality. This fear anthropomorphised’s power is founded in its mystery. By the end of the movie you’ll know very little about the creature itself – not its motive, nor its reasons. Even its tactics seem jumbled. But all of its aspects are harrowing. With a sad clown visage hidden beneath an amplified gothic Child Catcher get-up, it’s probably best the origins remain unknown. It’s also far more frighteningly fun to allow your imagination to draw its own conclusions.
The Babadook’s horrors loom long after the film’s end, the movie relying heavily on atmosphere and tension rather than the go-to jump scares. Thankfully The Babadook is multi-layered and, once the shakes subside following a few sleepless nights, you can look back wide-eyed on the brave keystone of the film’s bulking mother/son combo. We rarely see horror break from its flimsy stereotypes, let alone tackle something so potentially sensitive as a child’s disability and his mother’s wavering patience.
We rarely see horror tackle something so potentially sensitive as a child’s disability and his mother’s wavering patience
Both Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman tackle their roles with maturity and conviction; Wiseman in particular appears thoroughly experienced at playing a pain-in-the-arse offspring. He may well be drawing from a deep-seeded knack for pulling at a parent’s temper strings. At first you’ll hate him, the director, Jennifer Kent, potentially pointing a finger at the audience as we even dare to find humour in his mother’s end of tether outbursts (come on, who hasn’t wanted to curse out that child, whether your own or otherwise, screaming the supermarket into oblivion?).
It’s easy to sympathise with the sleep-deprived matriarch, or so it would seem until her son’s bed time paranoia manifests into a very real monster. It’s then that her evermore glaring selfishness begins to sit quite uncomfortably with the audience, as she delves further into Babadook-influenced madness. To put it simply, The Babadook has been made by a director flexing her manipulative muscles.
We are but putty in her hands, and Kent proves more than once throughout The Babadook that human beings aren’t as black and white as the silver screen would have us believe. We all sit upon a spectrum of grey, mirrored in the under-saturated colours of The Babadook’s setting. The dreary mise-en-scene plays a large role in manifesting the small family’s post-traumatic emotional slump into a tangible visual, enabling the Babadook’s terror to fester beneath it.
The film’s terrifying on the outside and thoughtful on the in, so it wouldn’t seem unjust to class it with other legendary horrors
And so, we are led full circle back to that pop-up book. Filled with whimsy and hellish invention, it is the vessel through which the Babadook crosses over from its own hateful world and into our protagonists’ lives. That book will no doubt become the symbol that sticks out most when we remember the film as either a cult classic or staple piece in ground-breaking horror cinema.
The film’s both terrifying on the outside and thoughtful on the in, so it wouldn’t seem unjust to class it with other legendary horror movies; Psycho, Alien, The Thing, The Exorcist, Silence of The Lambs, The Babadook. See? Fits right in. And fitting in with such company warrants a place as one of 2014’s best movies. If you’re struggling to agree, well, quite frankly your opinion means very little, because: “If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”
All images: Cinetic Media/eOne Films International/IFC