If it’s in a tweet, on a blog, or in a post on Facebook, you can’t get rid of THE BABADOOK. At least, it’s seemed that way for the past few months. Just about every blogger I know — and also those I don’t — has not only reviewed this indie horror from Oz, but has also raved about it. But not Frisco Kid.
It’s not that I didn’t want to see it. Quite the opposite, in fact — I waited impatiently for it to come up on Netflix. Then it did, finally, on DVD. I moved it to the top of my queue, then wiped the drool off my chin. Shortly thereafter, it appeared on the streaming side of Netflix as well. Hallelujah!
Mister Babadook did not disappoint. Writer-director Jennifer Kent brings to the screen a horror film that combines elements from several different subgenres in a highly effective and (dare I say it) original way. Within an overall psychological drama about a tragically widowed single mother, Amelia (Essie Davis), and her disturbed six-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), Kent includes possession, infestation, haunted-house, home invasion and slasher tropes. And she does it all without gobs of CGI or shaky POV shots.
Starting out in a wider world that includes work, school, friends, and neighbors for Amelia and Samuel, the milieu becomes increasingly dark and claustrophobic as the story progresses. Not that it was that brightly lit to begin with. While she has a male admirer at work, Amelia has only one close female friend, her sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney). Samuel’s behavioral oddities and frequent temper tantrums have alienated his teacher and principal at school and his friends at home. Amelia avoids talking about her dead husband, yet is haunted by his memory.
Samuel needs to be reassured that there are no monsters in his room every night before going to bed, but doesn’t fall asleep until Amelia has read him a storybook (or two). Then, one night, Amelia allows Samuel to pick the story. Off a shelf in his bookcase he pulls a slim red volume titled Mister Babadook. Once read aloud, this ingeniously designed popup book is as much a magical incantation as a disturbing children’s story. Beyond his immediate tantrum, Samuel’s response is to become obsessed with the Babadook, who begins to visit him in his room. He arms himself with homemade weapons to defend himself and his mother against this invader, but ends up getting kicked out of school for taking one of them with him to school. Soon a pair of local social services workers are knocking on the door of his home.
But they’re not the only ones. Despite trying to get rid of the book by tearing it up and throwing it in the rubbish bin, it somehow winds up — repaired, revised, and updated — on the doorstep, announced by the Babadook (like the Postman) knocking twice, in his characteristic dook-dook-dook fashion. Although Amelia eventually burns this version, which depicts her transformation into a murderous lunatic, she has nevertheless LET HIM IN. In probably the most frightening scene in the movie, the Babadook (Tim Purcell) reveals himself to Amelia just before getting inside of her, just as he had threatened in the book.
The sexual overtones of that last sentence are not due to my word choice alone. From the opening “nightmare” scene, the film builds a close connection between Samuel’s dead father and the Babadook. Is it a psychological or supernatural manifestation? That depends whether the viewer chooses to view the film’s ending as factual or metaphorical. At any rate, the link between Mister Babadook and Amelia’s dead husband leads me to Frisco Kid’s “babytalk theory” of the Babadook’s name. The last syllable, “dook,” pronounced like “book,” can be seen to mean just that. The first part of the word, “baba,” sounds like “Da Da.” Therefore, “Babadook” = “Daddy book.”
I’m not the first to suggest such an interpretation, which has a fairly good fit with the story itself. It’s as if Amelia’s rage at being abandoned by her husband and stuck with parenting Samuel alone materializes in physical reality, first as a book and then as the Babadook himself. It’s all Oedipal conflict from there on out. Samuel, who (in the vibrator scene) interrupts his mother while she is trying to alleviate her sexual frustration, kills off his father with his own birth, winning an Oedipal victory. The father, like all repressed memories, returns from the unconscious to haunt him and his mother as the Babadook. Once “inside” Amelia again, Daddy (as the Babadook) can duke it out with the son in an Oedipal rematch (Oedipus II?).
My sarcastic tone indicates that I’m aware that I might be over-intellectualizing the film, which admittedly tends to undercut psychological interpretations with its supernatural ending. Nevertheless, it isn’t everyday that a horror film both makes you think and scares the crap out of you. This kind of cinematic quality is due not only to Jennifer Kent’s great screenplay and direction, but also to the excellent performances of Davis and Wiseman. I would be remiss not to mention the fine supporting cast, cinematography, sound, editing, and special effects.
This is probably the best horror that I have seen in awhile. In the unlikely event that there is still someone out there who hasn’t seen it yet, my advice is to let THE BABADOOK in as soon as possible.