Last night, after countless weeks of putting it off, I finally sat down and watched The Babadook with my brother. Both of us were itching for a good horror film, and of the last two we watched, Rosemary’s Baby turned out to be more of a drama with some horror elements, and 13/13/13 was just flat-out hilarious (we sort of expected that with the latter). Generally, the modern horror movies that I enjoy the most are the ones that are darkly comedic, like You’re Next or the Final Destination films, which are more fun than outright scary. The ones that go the more straightforward route are often ugly, cheap, and lazily thrown together. Such is not the case with The Babadook. Within the first ten to fifteen minutes, my brother and I were simultaneously captivated and anxiety-ridden.
What makes The Babadook so thrilling? Perhaps, for me, along with the genuinely well-earned spooks, it’s the fact that The Babadook so impressively toys with and subverts expectations. I wonder if The Babadook would even be so impressive had mainstream horror movies not taken a nosedive into a pool of tedium and unoriginality, because much of the tension created by this film relies on the fact that audiences have been conditioned to expect jump scares. The Babadook has a few startling moments, but no jump scares. Still, every shot is set up to create the feeling of buildup towards a jump scare; the viewer’s anxiety builds as a result, but The Babadook never banks on that anxiety too early.
Director of photography Radek Ladczuk keeps the camera tightly focused on people and objects, limiting the viewer’s field of view. Effective horror is derived, in part, from a sense of helplessness, so the deprivation of proper vision allows the audience to believe that just about anything could be lurking right outside the edge of the shot. It also contributes to a feeling of claustrophobia, boxing the audience into a tight little rectangle. As far as the color palette goes, The Babadook exists in muted blues, greys, and blacks. There’s a lifelessness to the color scheme, and this aspect of the visuals ties in well to the film’s themes of depression. Writer/director Jennifer Kent initially wanted to either shoot the film in black-and-white, or, at the very least, convert it in post-production. That certainly would have made the shadows a deeper, darker shade of black, and perhaps contributed more to the eeriness of the film, but I can’t help but feel like the emotional elements of the film would have been lost and replaced by an Eraserhead-like bleakness.
It certainly is an emotional film. It’s been said to death, but The Babadook serves as a metaphor for depression and grief. Before the hauntings even start occurring, this film is compelling in its depiction of Amelia, played magnificently by Essie Davis, a widowed single mother dealing with an unruly and clearly disturbed son. The boy constantly acts up, and has even taken to crafting homemade weapons a la Kevin McCallister. This is a film that’s as much a drama about a family overcoming loss as it is a horror film about a family dealing with a ghostly presence.
I found the film playing mind games with me, making me feel safe at times and then pulling that safety away. For awhile, the ghostly activity only seemed to be occurring at night. My brother and I remarked that the daytime sequences were like a respite from the horrors of the pitch blackness of night. Then we witnessed the scene in which the Babadook, a monster from a children’s horror book come to life, left an even darker version of his book on Amelia’s doorstep . . . during the daytime. Daytime no longer became safe. Slowly, the Babadook began to appear in and capture more and more of the “safe zones” of the film. Viewers are not directly thrust into this horror; they are slowly lowered, and that’s even scarier. The phone sequence is especially frightening, as the Babadook speaks its soon-to-be famous “catchphrase” (for lack of a better word) to Amelia over the phone. Here, the creature has first materialized to us. It’s no longer the stuff of legend. It has a level of tangibility to it now. It’s a scene that’s perfectly executed, and put at just the right time in the film. Too late, and the buildup may have turned to tedium. Too early, and the buildup wouldn’t have existed at all.
Attention should also be paid to the sound design and Jed Kurzel’s score. Kurzel’s score is typically creepy but atypically understated, and the sound design is so detailed, allowing for even the smallest and most insignificant of noises to creep through. Of course, they’re not so insignificant when the viewer is in the midst of the film and their paranoia is at an all-time high. Together, the diegetic sound and the score combine to create a great sense of dread in the film. The score will flare up during attempted moments of intensity (“attempted” in that the events themselves aren’t intense, but are chosen to be and elevated based on the audiovisual elements) before cutting out and leaving the audience with an almost hollow feeling left over. Much like the monster itself, the audience is teased with sound just the right amount.
The Babadook is one of the most chillingly-effective horror films to be released in a long time. It’s almost Pavlovian in a way, and the audience is its dogs. Jump scares are the dog food, and the anticipation and anxiety leading up to the the jump scares are the salivation. This all is to say that horror movies so regularly follow up anticipation with reward that audiences have been conditioned to expect reward whenever anticipation arises. The Badabook creates anticipation, but instead of relying on the reward, it relies on the increasing and increasing fear of the jump scare, subverting all of the rules that have been written over time by the most popular horror films and franchises. At its center, though, it’s also a very human drama. Rarely will you feel so scared and so emotionally-affected all at once, but The Babadook manages to pull that off with the type of elegance and intelligence not often found in the genre. This may be the directorial debut and the first feature-length screenplay by Jennifer Kent, but she approaches it like a veteran, and I sincerely hope that her career takes off as a result.
“If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”