When I was a kid, there was one book on my shelf that used to give me nightmares. It was called The Ugliest Dog in the World and it was supposed to be a funny children’s book. The story itself wasn’t what frightened me; rather, it was the book’s back cover, which featured the portrait of a screaming girl. There was something profoundly disturbing about her expression, and I will never forget it.
Jennifer Kent’s magnificent debut film, The Babadook, plays on all of our childhood fears and the traumatic aftershock of nightmares. Intensely perturbing and psychologically terrifying, Kent has truly mastered the art of horror. The film belongs to a mature subset of the horror genre, one that is more subtle, psychically perverse, and nuanced. Despite the lack of jump-scares or gore, The Babadook chills down to the bone, and leaves you unsettled for hours. Deftly incorporating excellent writing with suspenseful timing and brilliant acting, Kent has crafted one of the best horror films of this decade.
Amelia and Sam, equally troubled mother and son, are both broken by the death of husband/father, and this loss subsequently manifests as the Babadook, a physical reflection of their grief. One night, Sam asks his mother to read him a nighttime story, choosing a new book that has mysteriously appeared on his shelf. An interactive, hand-drawn, inky fable about a boogeyman of sorts, each page of the tale becomes increasingly frightening and violent. Sam becomes obsessively scared of this creature and Amelia throws the book away only to have it appear again on her doorstep with added graphic pictures.
Like a grown-up nightmare from which one cannot wake up, the audience is thrown into the calamity of their situation, which engulfs the individual in a sort of melancholic paralysis. Unlike most scary movies that I have seen—and I have seen a lot—the lightness of the next morning does not bring forth temporary repose in The Babadook, and we are never given the chance to feel the calm of a new day. Here, Kent takes our deepest-seated anxieties, our fears, our insecurities, and exploits them to the fullest degree, breeding a sense of uneasiness that only grows stronger with each coming day.
The physical depiction of the Babadook itself does not get a lot of screen time. In fact, the monster only appears once. But as Amelia reads, “If it’s in a word or in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” This phrase appears in the storybook and not only aptly summarizes the nature of the Babadook, but is at the very heart of what makes the movie horrifying.
While The Babadook is delightfully sinister and will give you quite the scare, the film is also impressively insightful. Kent really plays up the book aspect of the story, and at one point Amelia even vomits out ink. On a broader level, the film is exploring the impact of words, the impact of narratives, and the debilitating darkness that can eat away at you if you allow the bitterness of your grief to consume you.
We are all haunted by the Babadook—haunted by our imperfections, our weaknesses. The Babadook is in the words that cut us, in the unkind looks that we see and cannot unsee. It terrified me. It will terrify you, too.