There is a mirror at the foot of Amelia’s (Essie Davis) staircase in The Babadook, a new psychological horror fable from writer-director Jennifer Kent. But it isn’t used to startle us with spontaneous sightings of ghosts or homicidal stalkers, or even of the hallucinatory fragments of the heroine’s subconscious mind. Rather, the mirror, here, functions as a watchful bystander — a caster of a literal reflection of the times in which this film, centered around the complexities of inexplicable suburban violence and the martyrdom of motherhood, was fortunately made.
Newly widowed, her husband, Oskar (Benjamin Winspear), the victim of a gruesome slashing at precisely the same time her now-six-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), was born, Amelia’s maternal obligations far supersede her self-actualization, be it social, professional, or even sexual. Samuel is, in archetypal terms, a “problem child,” and it is only during his bedtime hours that Amelia exhaustedly attempts to savor the solitary pleasures of watching infomercials, eating chocolate, and masturbation, albeit with constant interruption from her son’s night terrors. Matters are further complicated when, one night before bed, Samuel insists that Amelia read him The Babadook, a portentous pop-up book that seems to have materialized out of thin air and found its way to his shelf. In each of the book’s harrowing illustrations, the eerie creature from whose name its story (and the film) derives its title is the catalyst of various grim and foreboding scenarios, most involving the Babadook’s inevitable invasion of a mother and son’s home (the mirror image of Amelia and Samuel’s) and deaths of its inhabitants. Amelia’s instincts are keen enough to shield Samuel’s impressionable young mind from the book’s unsettling implications mid-way through their reading, but not before he can convince himself that the Babadook’s existence is anything but fictional.
That Samuel’s erratic behavior is exacerbated by his exposure to The Babadook poses a fascinating test in the suspension of disbelief — of Amelia’s and our own. Kent’s layered screenplay offers clues as to the origin of the book and its omnipotent malevolence, in scenes involving a child’s birthday party at which Amelia’s past as a writer of children’s books is briefly alluded to, or in Samuel’s bedroom, where his fascination with television magicians offer him the only thing resembling a substitute for his father. (It’s also the only thing that will pacify him long enough for his mother to regain her composure). The Babadook’s terror, then, lies in the fact that its reality is not beyond their control, but rather a consciously, willfully created entity — of allegorical significance for Amelia, and of childish smoke and mirrors for Samuel. Oskar’s death was never what they wanted, but the Babadook is the explanation they chose for its repercussions.
In this way, the film’s ghastly monster, whose silhouette is something approaching a hybrid of Max Schreck’s Count Orlok of Nosferatu and the infamous Slender Man internet meme, is the manifestation of a mother-son relationship bound by imagination and torn by trauma. Yes, it is the Babadook who drives Amelia to madness and murderous rage as her son insists on its existence in the “real world,” but it is also the one thing that necessitates their constant close proximity. The Babadook’s impact on Amelia and Samuel’s familial dynamic puts both of their insane behavior on an even keel. Consider: If Mommie Dearest’s Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway)were to have The Omen’s Damien (Harvey Stephens) for a son, whose perspective would be more readily identifiable?
In The Babadook, Kent has given us a first-rate horror film by exposing the ugly underside of the proverbial broken home. It is in the mirror at the foot of Amelia’s stairs that the reflection of maternal filicide-suicide — for which, according to studies conducted in Kent’s native Australia, 20% of its cases are associated with depression and morbid jealousy — is cast. Surely the boiling animosity of Amelia’s resentment toward Samuel’s ability to resume his life while her late husband cannot is not lost, here, and the Babadook even makes its way into the film’s self-contained universe of public lore when Amelia watches a news broadcast that links another neighboring single mother’s murder of her son to the mysterious appearance of the book.
But then, is that underside so one-sided? The Babadook’s climax — which, rather than summarized, deserves to be seen and, for investigative purposes, re-seen — inverts the hideousness of the film’s titular specter and beautifies its intervention in the lives of its characters. Under the spell of Kent’s masterful direction and ingenious narrative parameters, Davis and Winspear deliver memorable performances to render an on-screen relationship that is equal parts adversarial and resiliently loving. Together, their final moments give us the film’s most terrifying revelation: that The Babadook, written and drawn in black ink that cannot be erased, is forever their master and slave. With her destined-to-be-iconic monster, Kent argues for post-traumatic stress and the plight of single parenthood as both burden and liberation — the literal and figurative mothers of invention. Whether or not Kent, Amelia, or Samuel see it when they stare at the mirror, it’s tough denying that the Babadook has stared back at them…and the rest of us.
The Babadook will see theatrical release November 28, 2014