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  • Rev Horror

The Babadook

Dir. Jennifer Kent (2014)

A recently widowed single mother and her child are tormented by a monster in the closet and a scary children's book.

The Babadook is a film that sort of took the world by storm. For some, it was a beacon of hope, for what indie horror could be capable of if not for its themes of getting past grief and continuing with your life. For others, it was the most obnoxious film in recent memory, a difficult-to-enjoy film despite the fact that its incredibly well-made in every technical respect. For the record, I largely fell into that second camp, more than happy to acknowledge director Jennifer Kent's storytelling ability, visual style, and connection to much deeper themes than horror usually handled at the time while also hoping that the mother in the film would push the kid off a cliff by the end. Since it's Mother's Day and all, I figured I would give the film another look and see if I could appreciate it more ten years after its initial release.

Amelia Vanek (Essie Davis) is a middle-aged single mom who lost her husband in a car accident on the way to the hospital to deliver her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). She finds brief connections at work with an orderly, Robbie (The Snowtown Murders' Daniel Henshall), at the nursing home she works, but very little else. She's doing the best that she can, but her son is as deeply damaged as she is, a strange little boy with obsessive impulses and a tendency to get into trouble. When he discovers a morbid and terrifying children's book called The Babadook, the family must finally deal with their longstanding grief in order to vanquish the monster that the book creates.

The 2010's were an interesting time for horror, a time when indie horror was just starting to hit the mainstream. The previous decade had some incredible films, but a lot of them flew well under the radar of horror fans who weren't scouring the internet looking for lost and forgotten gems. There were a few standouts, of course, beginning in the late 90's with The Blair Witch Project and continuing with 2007's Paranormal Activity, among others. During this time period however, it was exceedingly rare for any indie horror with substance, anything that delved more deeply into the human experience in a meaningful or emotional way, to really make an impact on the American zeitgeist. The Babadook changed that, showing an entire generation of young, largely broke filmmakers that they could make a good-looking, non-gimmicky, and poignant horror film without spending a lot of money and depending solely on their storytelling ability.

Make no mistake, the kid in this film is annoying as hell. It's difficult to get past, because he's so present and such a part of the main plotline of the film. Samuel's irritating presence is part of what is driving Amelia to where she goes. The child's inability to handle his circumstances is only compounding her own, drawing her further and further into this nebulous state of stagnation, putting her job, her home, her relationships, and every other piece of her life at risk. But that's all part of the point, that's something that must be dealt with in order for the family to overcome the overwhelming cloud that the loss of their husband/father has brought to their lives. The story appears on its surface to be about Amelia, but in reality, it is about both of them, and about both of their abilities to move on from their trauma.

I've said in the past that the focus that recent horror has had on trauma and its impact on people's lives has become overwrought, something that you expect to see in every single genre even when it doesn't belong. In 2014, though, that was not the case, and The Babadook was one of the first to take this on head-on in a watchable and entertaining way. It's a little pop psychology at times, and its not a movie that tries to go tremendously deep with its lessons, but it's an important lesson to be learned regardless. Amelia's attacks on animals, her degradation into insulting and threatening her child, her alienation from those close to her, all of these things are real trauma responses that are natural brain feedbacks if coping strategies are not developed and implemented. It's easy to overlook these things in our own lives, but harder to do so when they're presented in such compelling (and ominous) ways on-screen. Kent delivers these messages succinctly and interestingly enough, even if it can be a bit overbearing at times.

The Babadook is also genuinely scary a whole lot of the time. Despite its dependence on an obnoxious central character, which is necessary and actually believable within the context of the story, its a film that is chilling and quite effective in its goals. Yeah, its about a bad mom and a shitty kid, but that describes hundreds of thousands of families around the world, making the message of the film incredibly important to analyze in today's world. Our culture is no longer one of blissful ignorance, and these lessons are important ones to impart. The knowledge that grief must be shared, or that it is even when we don't recognize that it is, can be so earth-shattering and productive to those undergoing this pain. Kent's bravery in discussing these concepts within a horror framework is impressive regardless of the audience's feelings about one of the two main characters.

I get why people had some backlash towards the film, to be sure, but I also think that it's one worth re-examining. It's brilliant in its overarching simplicity, and it had some of the best production values for an indie horror ever made at the time it was released. It's a well-made, well-acted film with a lot to say, and it says it incredibly well. The film certainly has some issues, and perhaps its a bit more reliant on the personalities of its characters than it needs to be, but it retains its effectiveness even all these years later. You can't ask for a whole lot more than that from a film, especially one as scary as this one.

Who this movie is for: Indie horror fans, Emotional horror lovers, Children's book publishers

Bottom line: The Babadook has gotten a bad rap, even after its initial critical success. It's a fantastic film, and its incredibly scary at times as well. The main characters are annoying, and that sometimes can make it an irritating watch, but it's a very important film made at a very important time for the genre. At the very least, you can appreciate the film for its value to horror (and filmic storytelling in general) without endorsing every piece of the vehicle it uses to tell its tale. Not a bad film for Mother's Day after all.

Happy Mother's Day to any mothers reading this from everyone here at The Horror Revolution. We hope your day is excellent, your kids are quiet, and that you don't have any more! Unless you want some more, and then I would encourage you to reconsider.

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