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Film Review: The Babadook

The Babadook (2014; Directed by Jennifer Kent)

Australian cult psychological horror film The Babadook is a powerful extended metaphor for the disquieting influence of trauma and grief, a poisonous force that disfigures a mother’s relationship to her son and hijacks their domestic existence. Its titular horror-movie monster also, bizarrely, became a LGBT symbol, a cultural meme that began with the head-scratching classification vagaries of the Netflix algorithm and the obvious clash between the movie’s ominous blackened darkness and the multichromatic celebratory flagrancy of Gay Pride, but has since traversed into semi-sincerity. Not singularly a manifestation of the agony of a buried personal trauma that threatens Amelia (a magnificently fried and frazzled Essie Davis), the Babadook could also be understood to represent the disavowed pain of the closet and the dangerous mental drag of repressed identity (though these themes have no particular purchase in the cinematic text itself, it should be admitted). Like much recent psychological horror of note (It Follows, The Witch), The Babadook constructs the fearful extremes of experience catalyzed by a malevolent supernatural force as a potent symbol for deeper, more amorphous forces of society and memory.

If we can acknowledge that these are the things that The Babadook is, then perhaps we can approach an assessment of what The Babadook, with slowly-dawning frustration, is not: namely, an involving, entertainingly scary horror film. It’s difficult to quantify exactly why writer/director Jennifer Kent’s clever, intellectually-rich creation doesn’t ultimately land as a compelling factory of fear. Everything is in its right place, nothing presses against the limits of its internally-consistent terms of suspension-of-belief, and the design of the titular monster – a leering-visaged, elongated black shadow with talon-fingered Nosferatu hands and an eerie old-fashioned top hat – is simply and often crudely realized in a way that makes it even more instantly iconic and disturbingly creepy, like a stalking Gilded-Age-era cousin of Slenderman. The Babadook should be great. The very fact that it found its way from marginal Down Under independent cinema circles to the wider world implies that it must be. But it isn’t. Why not?

Most naggingly, this fairly efficiently-lengthed film (94 minutes of runtime) feels almost interminably long. Most likely, Amelia’s suffering is a touch too relentless. The slow unravelling of her life and her relationship with her imaginative, precocious, semi-neglected handful of a son Samuel (Noah Wiseman, balancing grating irritation with believable sweetness and desperate-to-please vulnerability) in the wake of the death of her husband Oskar (Benjamin Winspear) in a car crash as he drove her to the hospital to give birth to their son is central to the film (it is the film). But Kent pushes the same buttons repeatedly, re-emphasizing what has already been well and truly established. The Babadook should crescendo with Amelia and Samuel facing down the beast of grief in its full might, but this cup of misery merely overflows once filled (and that happens earlier than it ought to, perhaps a sign of freshman director Kent’s inexperience).

It’s really too bad that this movie doesn’t ultimately put it all together, because that all is often superbly imagined and richly fascinating. The Babadook itself, first manifested in the alarming imagery and words of an exquisitely-designed children’s pop-up book, is a tremendous imagistic metaphor. The being is increasingly identified directly with the forever-absent paternal figure of Oskar, the lost patriarchal stability implied by the dead father turning unsettlingly menacing and dangerous as it demands familial blood-sacrifices of Amelia (she has a little dog named Bugsy, and things never go well for dogs in movies like this). The Babadook is an inherently masculine-marked figure (that banker’s top hat, for starters) whose haunting prevalence in the psyches of Amelia and Samuel prevent them from relating to each other healthily and sanely. The resolution of the problem it represents, like that of pained grief and past trauma, does not lie in killing the monster but in taming it, feeding it as little as possible while learning to live with the dark turn of thoughts and feelings it symbolizes.

One could conceivably push readings of the Babadook even further to historical and sociopolitical territory. Kent’s film is clearly set in Australia but avoids obvious, stereotyped Australian-ness (what that would be, outside of the Babadook manifesting as a kangaroo who is killed by Crocodile Dundee with a hunting knife, is not entirely clear). Australia, like many settler societies, has a dark, semi-genocidal element embedded in its foundations that might be said to be a Babadook-esque force in the life of the nation, to say nothing of its complicated and troubled history as a British penal colony, a history frequently disavowed and treated with shame when it is acknowledged. Kent’s next film, The Nightingale, is set in Tasmania in 1825 and seems poised to look this hidden Australian darkness straight in the face, so it’s hardly far-fetched to suggest that her artistic intentions might have run in such a direction in the film in question, albeit in highly disguised form.

The Babadook is fertile ground for such interpretations, which makes it that much more disappointing that the baseline-level effect of the film itself is so mixed. This is a film that knows, with depth and breadth and pregnant meaning, what it’s about. That it can’t quite translate that meaningful core into a necessarily involving and affecting genre film, that it just falls short of doing what it ultimately aims to do, makes it frustrating but no less compelling. What is does do is announce an exciting new filmmaking talent from the Antipodes. Jennifer Kent has the tools and the vision, and if they aren’t all on full and effective display in The Babadook, this movie strongly suggests that we’ll see her get there sooner than one might expect.

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