Horror, when you get right down to it, is less about the tales and more about who is telling them. After all, horror stories- warnings of what waits out in the dark- are the oldest and most powerful stories, and with such immovable foundations in place, a good horror movie can live or die by its telling.
The Babadook is a wonderful example of this.....
On the surface, it is another “family home assaulted by other-wordy forces” tale, and I forgive you if you’re yawning already. This pitting the most obvious targets against the most nebulous of threats is a well trod path, but it has nether-the-less produced some greats, even some classics. And I am happy to lump The Babadook in with them.
What’s The Babadook s big strength? Why does it deserve its accolade? It is, after all, a low budget Australian affair, coming out of nowhere and driven almost entirely by no-name talent. But then, where have we heard that before? Game-changers rarely come from the establishment…
However, indie moxie isn’t The Babadook s special power. It is the decision to present the threat- the titular Babadook- as a hybrid of boogey man and mental illness.
We, as an audience, begin to realise that the monstrous interloper into the home of a single mother and her troubled child isn’t a closet-dwelling phantom, but a representation of a grief-stricken widow’s breaking psyche, a bleak depression that threatens to overwhelm her identity utterly, and bring harm to those she loves most…
…Or is it? Part of the cleverness of The Babadook is that the viewer spends less time wondering if the phantom is real or imagined, and realises that the differentiation really doesn’t matter— the horror is equal either way, plucking not just at our anxieties about what unknowns may lurk out in the world, but what unknowns may lurk within us.
So the theme is pertinent, and perhaps of its time— as relevant to today’s audience, those more educated about mental illness and so more attuned to its threats, as McCarthyism was to those who were once fascinated by invasion movies. Like most horror movie heroines, when protagonist Amelia tries to get help with her supernatural problem, she is greeted with suspicion, condescension and ostracisation, but in this case it’s just as much a social commentary as a narrative necessity.
But, coming down from self-congratulatory nods about the well-handled themes in The Babadook the movie works well as just-another-horror-movie. It is beautifully shot, with a queer Australian gothic that really butters the mis-en-scene. All the familiar horror dance steps, the beats and nods and rhythms, are stepped with utter confidence, and build a rising crescendo of creepiness with nary a bum note.
Structurally, the departure from standard horror expectations (something I’ll happily argue rarely happens outside of indie-type fare) lies in the final act, where the movie changes gears and the expected creepiness is smothered with a sense melancholic dread and outright sadness. In short, The Babadook won’t have you jumping at shadows, but it might keep you awake for other reasons.
I have a theory about ghosts and such, when people tut and roll their eyes and say “It’s all in your head!” I think to myself, in my head, where we all spend most of our time, “How in the hell is that supposed to reassure me? If anything, that is where I am most vulnerable.”
And so the Babadook waits, not in graveyards or old mansions or abandoned malls, but inside you. Where you can’t run from it.
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