12.16.2014

The Films of 2014: The Babadook



Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook isn’t just the best new horror film in recent memory—it’s one of the best films of the year, period.  It’s a horror film that understands, as all the best horror films do, that our scariest encounters are often with the people we know and love best; that the most familiar and intimate of spaces can also be the most dangerous; and that within a family the urge to protect one another can sometimes shade into the desire to kill one another.  It’s the same principle that drives the stories of the Brothers Grimm, in which a child can never be sure if his parents are going to save him, abandon him, or eat him. 

In The Babadook, as in The Shining, Wozzek, and “Hansel and Gretel,” terror begins at home.  The film is a Freudian fairy tale/horror story in which mother and son (Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman) find themselves terrorized not by a malevolent spirit but by their own overwhelming grief for the husband and father who died in a car accident seven years earlier.  Theirs is a house haunted by a toxic residue of anger and sadness that comes to manifest itself as Mr. Babadook, a tall, black-hatted figure who springs from the pages of a mysterious storybook.  The Babadook is a legitimately scary figure, one that lurks eerily in the shadows of the house and is never clearly seen, but it functions just as effectively as a metaphor for the psychic damage that attends the death of a loved one.  This is not a film in which an external threat gets imposed on a random group of characters who have the misfortune to stumble across its path: the horror grows out of the desperation of the characters, who are vividly drawn and superbly acted, and out of their relationships with each another.  Davis and Wiseman are required to come off as sympathetic and monstrous from one moment to the next.  At other times they manage to be both monstrous and sympathetic in the same moment.  Their characters occasionally play on familiar tropes from other horror classics—the evil child, the murderous mother—but Davis and Wiseman ground them in a psychological reality that prevents them from becoming stock villains.  What’s remarkable about the film is that we care for the characters even when they are at their most monstrous, and that we’re asked to respond to them as both monsters and victims.  Our fear is cut with (and intensified by) a raw emotional despair that horror rarely attempts to deal with.

As a first-time filmmaker, Kent’s handling of the plot could be tighter in spots, and the last act goes through one or two dramatic reversals too many.  On the other hand, the unpredictability and messiness of that last act serves to ratchet up its dramatic power.  We’re made to see that this is not a family doing battle with some vague external force: they’re fighting to conquer the most ugly parts of themselves.  That we are so invested in that fight is a testament to Kent’s power as a storyteller.

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