Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, Australian horror film The Babadook is a welcome and terrifying antidote to modern society’s ‘yummy mummy’ depiction of motherhood, finds Bertie Bowen.
Single mum Amelia is struggling to control her aggressive son and her own growing despair. It’s been seven years since her husband was violently killed in a car crash on the way to the maternity ward, but the opening dream sequence finds Amelia (Essie Davis) reliving this horrific moment in graphic slow motion.
As well as having behavioural problems at school, seven-year-old Samuel (Noah Wiseman), is tormented by night terrors and convinced a monster is threatening to hurt him and his mum. Their exhaustion is palpable. When a book inexplicably appears in the house, Samuel persuades Amelia to read it to him, thus inviting Mister Babadook, a sinister, top-hatted character, into their home.
The Babadook is on many levels a traditional horror film: a poltergeist invades the family home, making contact with a troubled child who is chastised for telling lies about a ‘monster’. There are creaky floorboards, an ominous dark figure and even a forbidden basement, but this film uses such typical horror tropes to explore atypical themes of postnatal depression and motherhood.
Writer-director Kent’s study of a woman at the end of her tether is sharp and uncomfortable. The bleached out, muted colours (especially in Amelia’s scenes, her beige clothes, the pale walls) convey an atmosphere of absolute bleakness and claustrophobic exhaustion all too familiar to any parent of a young child. Sleeplessness eventually leads to madness and paranoia: there are times when Amelia’s mind is the monster as much as Mister Babadook himself.
Amelia denies the existence of the Babadook, as she denies her grief and sadness but the more she denies him the more powerful and dark he becomes. Mister Babadook is as much a real ghoul as it is a metaphor for Amelia’s downward spiral into depression and growing hostility towards her son. Several times the gentleman sat next to me chuckled at things I found particularly horrendous and disturbing from a mother’s perspective, suggesting that Kent is perhaps able to speak to the female audience more effectively than the male.
Both Essie Davis and seven-year-old Noah Wiseman give outstanding performances, utterly convincing and natural. The only unconvincing thing is Mister Babadook himself. Kent does a great job of creating an atmosphere of clambering dread – the illustrations in the book are genuinely creepy and the voice on the phone chilling, guttural and raspy – but when the actual being is revealed, it’s disappointing; a slight anticlimax.
A frighteningly frank study of the human maternal psyche told within a conventional horror format, The Babadook combines a psychologically disturbing and, at times, tender tale with a quiet dread and can’t-look-away terror. It may well have you grabbing the stranger next to you in the cinema (even if they are chuckling).
Stylist, writer and mother living in East London. A clompy shoed, curly haired, Radio 4 enthusiast. www.mothershoppers.com