As 6 year old Samuel’s doctor says, “all children see monsters”. Or hear them, under the bed and on the stairs. It’s a response to something they can’t control, and a way of making sense of big events in their lives. Most aren’t stalked through the darkness by a terrifying black hatted figure who wants to kill them though, and usually a couple of readings of Where The Wild Things Are is as bad as it gets in terms of scary books.
Not for poor Samuel and his single mother Amelia, who are psychologically held hostage in The Babadook, a supernatural home and mind invasion thriller where you’re never entirely sure what is real and what isn’t.
Amelia is a widow – her husband died taking her to hospital when she was in labour with Samuel and she still hasn’t recovered emotionally. She’s getting through each day but that’s about as much as she can manage, while Sam’s behaviour at school and home is deteriorating.
A book called Mister Babadook, featuring a terrifying black-clad man, has mysteriously appeared in their home. Samuel is obsessed with it but the pictures and message are so frightening that Amelia soon tears it up and chucks it in the outside bin.
That a children’s book appeared in their house as if from nowhere isn’t particularly troubling in itself – most parents know their house is full of books that just seem to materialise with no one having any idea where they came from. (This is particularly true of The Gruffalo – has anyone ever actually bought a copy? I know I haven’t and we’ve got three different versions, the 2014 Annual and a biscuit cutter). However when I’ve finally chucked a book out it has never reappeared, sellotaped back together, on our doorstep. Then again I know a lot of parents who are so obsessed with Never Throwing Away A Book Because For Some Never Explained Reason It’s Just Wrong that they would probably think from that moment on that Amelia deserved everything she got.
The sense of menace in their home grows gradually. Sam is scared and lonely but also angry and aggressive, building weapons out of boxes and darts or watching creepy DVDs about magicians. His anger initially seems like an expected response to his fatherless situation, but as unexplained events start occurring his tantrums and convulsions start to seem more like demonic possession. There’s glass in their food. Sam’s dad’s things are moved around in the basement with his suit found hanging there on a peg. Even the dog is starting to act weird.
Meanwhile his mother’s anger at him (driven by fear) as he will not let go of the Babadook, is leaving poor Sam isolated (in a horror film we can shout at the adults all we like to flee before the storm/Halloween/toxic waste accident but a child is stuck where their parents or carers are and has no agency to escape their home or their fears. Sam has only his own wits, his pet dog and his increasingly erratic and cruel mother to protect him).
Is Sam the Babadook? Both Sam and his mother are losing sleep, but the unexplained events – which could be as a result of their sleep deprivation – lead to even more exhausted, hallucinatory wakefulness. Soon it’s not Sam we’re worrying about as the source of evil but mum.
A mother’s descent into madness in film is often a cliche but here it is brilliantly done. First there are Samuel’s behavioural problems that isolate her from school and friends. Then it’s a belief that they’re being stalked. Then it’s a growing awareness and even acceptance of the frightening Babadook.
Is the Babadook real? Is it Sam’s father, and if it is then what on earth was he like when he was alive? Or is the monster’s manifestation not supernatural at all but simply Amelia’s ongoing grief, still not dealt with after 7 years? Her sister Claire tells her firmly that it’s time for Amelia to move on with her life after all this time, and dealing with grief sometimes seems like a disruptive state, an anger- and love-ridden whirlpool with no visible way out. To be honest despite not knowing the answers by the end (and I love proper answers to horror films – witness my obsession that somewhere Hicks, Newt and Ripley from Aliens are living happily on another planet with Jones the cat), it really didn’t bother me with The Babadook.
Noah Wiseman as Samuel is brilliant – the character is really annoying (like my boys, he will not stop asking questions or talking about anything really no matter how tense the moment is) but he’s also a brave boy who actually copes admirably as his mother gradually breaks down. Essie Davis is incredible as a mum holding it together on the surface but losing her grip on reality as she retreats physically and emotionally.
By the way when it comes to animals suffering on screen, many people get more upset than when something awful happens to an actual person, so I’m going to tell you NOW – that yes the dog gets it. I know and it’s so adorable! God I’ve barely got over Daisy the beagle puppy in John Wick. (Honestly film directors, can you please stop killing pets on screen? Or at least the cute ones with the floppy ears).
I was expecting The Babadook to be a straight psychological thriller/horror where you end up thinking it was all in the child’s head, but it isn’t like that at all. Is it scary? I found it very, very shocking rather than scary, and the mother’s breakdown – particularly the callous way she speaks to her young son – is actually really upsetting. Somehow hearing her tell Samuel to “eat shit” is worse than seeing him threatened with a knife.
I tend to find supernatural tails of ghosts and demons, or straightforward slasher horror porn, much more upsetting because of the visuals. Creepiness – while I don’t exactly look forward to watching such offerings alone in a large, gloomy house built near a native American cemetery – is less terrifying to me. Still, it does mean I get to focus on the story a bit more rather than hiding behind a cushion.
The ending was not what I was expecting at all. There’s no sequel set-up, and it’s not one of those utterly depressing endings where the heroine dies in the last shot and you wondered why you bothered becoming invested in the characters in the first place. I won’t say too much but think Gardeners World crossed with Shaun of the Dead, which is not actually as bizarre as it sounds.