As a kid, I read books about movie monsters. Literal encyclopedias, printed on cheap paper with black and white photos of everything from Ridley Scott’s Alien to the Ymir of 20 Million Miles to Earth, those books and my imagination stood in for the actual movies. This was the mid-80s, remember, before Netflix and on-demand. When I finally watched the movies, they were inevitably inferior to what I’d imagined, the movies far too dull for the fascinating creatures they’d starred.
Each time a new movie monster arrives on the scene, this is the question for me: Will it be cool enough to gain admission to the pantheon that includes Brundlefly and John Carpenter’s anonymous shape-shifting Thing, or will it belong instead on the forgotten ash-heap with Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla and the creature from The Relic?
The Babadook (alternately, “Mister Babadook”) creeps easily into the list of unique and memorable movie monsters, and while I have a few quibbles with the movie that brought him to us, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, it is unquestionably the best and most original horror film I’ve seen since Let the Right One In.
Kent’s film is perhaps the closest thing I’ve seen to a screen version of an Alvin Schwartz Scary Story. Shadowy and surreal, it alternates true terror with an unrelenting sense of unease and wrongness. Essie Davis plays Amelia, a single mother raising her troubled and sleepless son Samuel, who was born on the day she was widowed. One evening the exhausted mother invites her son to choose his own bedtime story, and he produces a strange popup book she’s never seen before, the brief and unfinished story of Mister Babadook, a fiendish and frightening creature who arrives from inside the closet and announces himself with three sharp knocks: “Baba-DOOK-DOOK-DOOK.”
So begins the small family’s haunting by Mister Babadook, who arrives in short order, first visible only to Samuel (granting us the obligatory, but well-executed, scenes of a creepy young child talking to the monster the adults can’t see) and eventually to Amelia as well. The Babadook, who viewers see most clearly in the book’s disturbing illustrations, gains power from those who refuse to believe he is real, and as he feeds off of Amelia’s denial she gradually loses what little sanity an exhausted single mother begins with.
Like Let the Right One In, The Babadook relies less on new scares than on well-executed familiar ones. That the titular monster is never seen clearly, but rather in illustrated form or as a shape in the shadows, is played to the film’s advantage. The audience mostly knows him from his knock, and from the raspy voice with which he delivers his chilling catch-phrase. In one particularly memorable scene, Amelia hides like a child beneath her blankets when the Babadook slips like a shadow into her bedroom. As the camera hides with her, the audience hears and almost feels the breath of the thing lurking just on the other side of the crochet bedspread.
My greatest complaint with what is undeniably a terrific film is the heavy-handed way it plays with what is otherwise a clever conceit: in working the worst of his evil by possessing Amelia, the Babadook becomes symbolic of a parent’s secret loathing for a nagging child, the embodiment of all the darkest notions one entertains when it’s 4 am on the fifth consecutive sleepless night and the baby is still crying. He’s something Amelia knows she can never truly be rid of, a thing she tells Samuel he might be ready to see “when he’s older.”
All truly great horror movies make the monster symbolic of some universal fear. Brundlefly and the Alien, for instance, represent the universal fear of our bodies betraying us, of parasitism and our inevitable decay. Some bad horror movies make this symbolism overt: Signs, for example, where the reality of an alien invasion takes a back seat to religious parable, or the second Nightmare on Elm Street, where Freddy stands in for the lead’s secret homosexuality by flipping tables at a pool party and hitting on the homecoming king. The Babadook straddles this line, with most of its weight on the good side–where it goes bad is when the film’s resolution [no spoilers] relies more on understanding the film’s subtext than the reality of the monster himself.
This is, of course, why The Babadook does so well with audiences and critics alike. It isn’t really a monster movie at its heart, and with the deletion of a few scenes it would remind me more of We Need to Talk About Kevin than any of those old classic horror flicks.
Again, though, this mostly works to the movie’s advantage. Where CGI has tempted most modern filmmakers into giving their monsters too much screen time, Kent’s choice to use only in-camera effects makes her film more reminiscent of an earlier era, when directors had to hide their monsters in shadow or just off-camera until the final “money-shot.” Hardcore monster buffs are likely to be disappointed by the lack of a such a payoff–the closest we get are the book illustrations and a lot of shadowy glances–but the average viewer will likely find The Babadook more satisfying, and more terrifying, than the average horror flick.