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Non-Review Review: The Babadook

Monsters are real.

We all have our own monsters that we keep with us over our lives. “You can’t get rid of the Babadook,” a mysterious storybook threatens early in the runtime of The Babadook. Young Samuel tries to warn his mother Amelia about the monster lurking in the dark spaces – under the bed, in the closet, in the corner of his eye. He offers one rather sage bit of advice when it comes to such creatures. “You have to let it in.”

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Writer and director Jennifer Kent has crafted a superlative creature feature with The Babadook, acknowledging the metaphorical nature of monsters. These strange nightmares tend to stand in as expressions of guilt or anxiety. They give expression to thoughts and fear we could never properly articulate. The Babadook teases its audience with questions about the reality of the eponymous creature.

Is the strange “Mr. Babadook” something that truly exists, or is it something Samuel (and maybe Amelia) have created to cope with a horrific trauma?

thebabadook2The Babadook is a superbly craft psychological horror about a mother and child trying to deal with some pretty deep-seated issues. Early in the film, we learn that Samuel’s father died on the same day that he was born – he was killed in a freak accident while driving Amelia to the hospital. The death lingers around the family. Approaching his seventh birthday, Samuel has vowed to “protect” his mother from monsters, while Amelia cannot bring herself to speak of her deceased lover or to organise a birthday party for Samuel.

There is a sense that the pressure is slowly getting to Amelia and Samuel. Samuel is acting out at school; he is also constructing improvised traps and defensive devices that would put Kevin McCallister to shame. Amelia has given up on her career as a writer, and works as a carer for the elderly; it seems that she has surrounded herself with death. As Samuel’s birthday and that important anniversary creep ever closer, strange things begin to happen in the family home.

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Kent’s script is quite canny here. Traditionally, this sort of horror film amps up the suspense by playing with the idea that this may be purely psychological. After all, monsters cannot possibly exist, so significant portions of the cast spend large portions of the runtime insisting that there are no such things as monsters… only to inevitably confront the monster in the final act. Along the way, these films will suggest that the protagonist is exhausted or paranoid or stressed, or the feat is an expression of some other anxiety.

The Babadook shrewdly eschews this approach. From early on, The Babadook rejects the idea that the monster being real precludes the psychological element of the horror. The eponymous nightmare creature can simultaneously be a horrific demonic monster and an expression of Amelia and Samuel’s repressed grief and anguish. Kent’s script very cleverly allows The Babadook to have its cake and eat it too.

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The character development feels real and earned – it is never a shallow feint to generate suspense about the nature of the monster. The dynamic between Amelia and Samuel feels real and nuanced, organic and fully-formed. The Babadook doesn’t conveniently throw out any hint of character or plot when the time comes to deliver on the inevitable third act scares. The Babadook makes those scares all the more powerful for tying them back into the central thematic and character arcs.

Kent does wonderful work as a director. There are sequences and shots in The Babadook that are hauntingly beautiful and eerily unsettling. The climax works well, with everything dutifully set up and foreshadowed before things get out of control. There’s a sense of creeping unreality to The Babadook, with Amelia and Samuel’s home coming to feel quite other and quite unsettling. Even the creature itself is well realised, with The Babadook revelling in the monster’s ambiguity.

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(The creature’s design is quite striking. It is is a creature of absolute darkness – it appears as a black shape in the “Mister Babadook” book, while it also wears a black top hat, black gloves and a black overcoat. There’s something almost Victorian about the monster, evoking the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. This feels quite appropriate, given the subtext of the movie and the focus on the often fraught relationship between Amelia and Samuel.)

The production and sound design on The Babadook are superlative – they create a tangible sense of dread and a menacingly macabre mood. Every noise in that big (and mostly empty) house might herald the arrival of something otherworldly and unsettling. The Babadook creaks and bubbles and stirs and bursts and swings with the best of them. It is a fantastically constructed piece of horror cinema, one put together with considerable skill.

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However, despite all this, it is the ending of The Babadook that works best. Jennifer Kent has taken a very stock horror movie, and twisted it ever so slightly. A lot of the joy of The Babadook comes from watching Kent play with familiar and classic horror movie conventions, occasionally veering off to do something striking or insightful. The Babadook‘s final few minutes are an absolutely ingenious take on a very familiar and almost rote set-up. The Babadook finds something clever and fresh to say about its genre.

The Babadook is a very clever, very well-conceived, horror film. Jennifer Kent has designed and crafted a film that uses a lot of familiar parts, but puts them to inspired use. It’s a delight.

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