October is Halloween movie month! Having been completely deprived of any kind of Halloween experience growing up, I now spend 31 days celebrating with film and TV. I like to shoot for a mix of old and new, horror and comedy, from the slightly spooky to the totally terrifying to the just plain weird. Each day of October I’ll reviewing one of these ventures in the realm of the creepy and supernatural. Some will be high quality cinema and some will require large amounts of alcohol to survive. Stock up on seasonal beer and Fireball-apple jello shots and join me! A warning, though – unless the review is of a very recent release, HERE BE SPOILERS.
The Babadook (2014)
Starring: Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman
Synopsis: Amelia (Essie Davis, about as far from her glamorous Miss Fisher as is possible to get) is a struggling single mother raising her young son, Sam. Amelia’s husband died in a car accident while driving her to the hospital to have Sam, and it’s clear she’s never recovered. Sam is a difficult child, clingy and demanding, obsessed with monsters and death. He doesn’t give Amelia a moment’s peace, keeping her up at nights and screaming constantly for attention. He makes weapons to fight the monsters and gets in trouble for bringing them school, as well as breaking stuff around the house with them and scaring his mother. Amelia clearly loves her son, but she’s worn thin. One night, he picks out a book to read called Mister Babadook that Amelia has never seen before. She begins to read it to him, but the monster described in it frightens her and terrifies Sam. He’s convinced the Babadook is real and acts out when Amelia doesn’t believe him, getting kicked out of school and accidentally injuring his cousin. Amelia tears up and throws away the book, but it shows up on the doorstep with new pages, showing Amelia killing the dog, then Sam, and then herself. She burns it in terror but soon begins seeing and hearing strange things, manifestations of the Babadook. Stuck in the house with Sam, Amelia becomes possessed by the creature and begins acting more and more erratically, saying horrible things to Sam and eventually even killing the dog, just like in the book. When she tries to kill Sam he stabs her leg and then ties her up, but encourages her to fight the creature within her. Finally, through sheer willpower and love for her son she manages to expel the Babadook and defeat it. But as the book says, “You can’t get rid of the Babadook”. It retreats the basement. Later, Sam is shown gathering insects, which Amelia takes down to the basement to feed the creature, facing it everyday and telling it that everything will be okay.
I’m not really a horror fan and I had heard this movie was very scary, though extremely good, so I resisted watching it for a long time. I’m glad I finally went for it, as it is a masterpiece of psychological terror that has some important things to say about motherhood, grief, and trauma. And that’s just for starters. It was quite scary, although not nearly as frightening as I had expected. I probably would have found it more viscerally terrifying had I seen it on a big screen in the dark instead of a small computer screen in the middle of the day. If I were a mother, I probably would have found it blood-curdling.
At the beginning of the movie, Amelia is just barely holding it together. She loves her son, but she also clearly resents him. I’m sure part of his behavioral issues come from not just the loss of his father, but his mother’s bitterness and his insecurity about her love for him and whether she will even be around for him in the long run. It’s a heavy thing to grow up knowing from the get-go how easily a parent can be lost. Amelia’s never dealt with her own loss, not properly, as shown by her refusal to celebrate Sam’s actual birthday or to talk about her husband with the older neighbor who knew him and adores Amelia and her son. Amelia’s walking a tight rope and it doesn’t take much to push her off.
The Babadook, whether originating in Amelia’s own psyche or an external force taking the shape of her own fears, manifests everything she’s been repressing all these years, everything Sam’s been sensing and interpreting as “monsters” stalking them. The scariest thing about the monster in this movie is that it does and says nothing that Amelia hasn’t already thought at some point. She blames Sam for her husband’s death on some level. She’s wished Sam had died instead of Oskar. She’s wanted to die herself, wanted them both to be able to be with her dead husband. She’s thought about hurting Sam. She’s wished he would just go away.
Of course, society tells us that a good mother would never think any of those things. And yet, it’s completely natural that she should under the circumstances. In fact most mothers, even in less stressful situations, have had thoughts of resentment towards their children, and think and feel things that they would never admit, even though they love their kids very much. It’s both universal and universally taboo. Amelia’s cognitive dissonance between the mother she is and the mother she thinks she should be provides the space for the Babadook to take control.
Amelia’s support system was tenuous to begin with, but it quickly erodes as the Babadook begins to make itself known. Sam’s insistence about it gets him kicked out of school and causes a fight with his cousin that alienates Amelia’s sister. Without any form of childcare, Amelia can’t go to work and when she is caught lying about Sam’s health to excuse her absences she also alienates her one friend at work. The only person left to help them is the old neighbor woman, who Amelia won’t go to because she’s a reminder of her husband and keeps encouraging Amelia to talk about him. Amelia and Sam’s world shrinks down to the two of them, trapped in their grim, joyless house.
The house was oppressive at the start, but grows increasingly dark and stifling over the course of the movie. Sleeplessness is also a theme, with Sam and Amelia both unable to sleep – her at first because Sam keeps her up and then later because she’s afraid of what she might do. The sleep deprivation really adds to the tension, as Amelia becomes increasingly desperate for rest and increasingly afraid of what will happen if she does. It also muddles the reality of their circumstances. It’s never clear how real the Babadook is versus how much of it is Amelia’s mind finally fracturing. The lack of sleep blurs those lines even further, making the audience and Amelia question everything as the situation deteriorates.
Cutting herself and Sam off from the world, even cutting the phone line when Sam tries to call for help, only makes things worse. But ultimately, it’s only Amelia and Sam facing the monster together that can defeat it. In the end, she realizes that whatever awful thoughts she might have had, she doesn’t want her son to die. And that she doesn’t want to die herself. And that trying to deny the darkness only makes it grow stronger. She can’t erase her grief and loss, or the awful circumstances of Sam’s birth, and she can’t pretend she’s not permanently scarred by losing her husband. But it’s only by accepting everything that’s happened, including her own darkness in response to it, without letting it control her, that she and Sam can move on.
I was incredibly impressed by this movie, but I love love loved the ending. It’s completely different than any other horror movie I’ve ever seen. Amelia can’t destroy the Babadook because it’s a part of her, so she lets it live in the basement. And she goes down to face it every single day. Anyone who’s ever experienced a great loss or struggled with a mental illness like depression knows that it’s not something you ever get over entirely – you have to face it day in and day out. But what I love best is that Amelia doesn’t fight the Babadook when she goes down there. She is kind to it. She reassures it and takes cares of it. Because she has finally learned how to be kind to herself, how to take care of that injured part of herself that may never fully heal. As someone who has depression, this resonated very strongly with me. Sometimes the best and hardest thing you can do is to accept that you have it and will probably never be totally free of it, and to be kind to that part of yourself without letting it run your life.
Now that Amelia knows how to be kind to herself, she can truly be kind to her son, and he in turn can feel more secure in her love and protection. She could never really accept him as long as she was unable accept herself and the things that had happened. The scene showing how excited Sam is that he can finally celebrate his birthday really drives home the degree to which Amelia’s inability to deal with her tragedy and trauma had damaged her son and helped to create the feedback loop of misery that almost killed them both.
I appreciate so much that this movie deals with Amelia’s struggle, her dark side, her unhealthy reaction to her grief, in a way that is unflinchingly honest but that never judges her. She’s made mistakes, big ones, but we are never made to feel that this makes her a bad person or even a bad mother. She has to make changes and grow to prevent her pain from destroying herself and her son, but never once does the movie seem to suggest that she is being punished or that she deserves the bad things that are happening because of some moral failing. She is struggling as so many people struggle.
The movie as a whole is expertly crafted, shot, and paced. The monster is painted in broad brushstrokes – we never see it clearly except in the drawings of the book, which makes it more effective as a boogeyman. But we are given enough of an outline that a shadow here or a line there can strike fear into our – and Amelia’s – heart. Essie Davis gives a powerful and moving performance, really carrying the movie, but Noah Wiseman also does some very heavy lifting for such a young child, especially in some of the more tense and emotionally heavy scenes. There are moments you can see the theater kid training pouring it on a little too thick, but mainly he’s convincing as a damaged, terrified, sometimes creepy, often annoying, but genuinely sweet and loving child. He makes Sam far more complex than the average movie child, much less the average horror movie child, and completely believable and real in both his existence and his complicated relationship with Amelia.
I really can’t say enough good things about this movie. It’s scary and upsetting, but never without sense or reason. It’s both the most frightening and the most comforting movie I’ve seen in a long time. Even if you hate horror movies, this one is worth your time and attention.
Quality: 10 mysterious children’s books out of 10. Well-made, complex, layered, and moving – hard to imagine anything to improve.
Enjoyment: 7 bowls of worms out of 10. I did enjoy this movie greatly, but it’s not one you watch just for fun. Also the killing of the dog plus a scene with a tooth were very hard to watch.