more stars than in the heavens

not in our stars, but in ourselves

Totem and Taboo and the Babadook Too

Before I begin, two things: (1) There will be spoilers aplenty in this review, so get out of here now if you haven’t yet seen the film; and (2) I am going to admit upfront a huge blind spot: I have not seen Repulsion or Possession.  Based on what I know of both, and based on other reviews of The Babadook, I’m sure it would be helpful to have those two movies in mind, at least, while talking about this one.  So before you come at me: no, I haven’t seen them; yes, I’m a sham cinephile.  I know.  I’m the worst.

Still here?  Good.

Babadook

You’ve probably heard about The Babadook by now.  You’ve probably read reviews.  You’ve probably read interviews with director Jennifer Kent.  You’ve probably heard that William Friedkin (director of a little movie called The Exorcist) deemed it the most terrifying film he’d ever seen.  Based on the box office tallies, however, you probably haven’t seen it.  Well, obviously you have, because you wouldn’t have disobeyed me and continued reading if you hadn’t seen it – right?  Of course.  But in general, it seems that every critic has seen it, but very few of the masses.  It’s coming out on video-on-demand, whatever that newfangled contraption is, so maybe that will bring it a bit more exposure.

Let’s hope so, because this is truly one hell of a movie.  There’s a lot to unpack here, so we’ll start with the plot.  Normally, I don’t synopsize the entire thing in a review, but again – there’s a lot to unpack, and I want to ground everything in what actually happens in The Babadook, from start to finish.

Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widow.  While her husband was driving her to the hospital to give birth to their son, he was killed in a car crash.  She and Sam (Noah Wiseman) have been living alone together for nearly seven years, in a dark old house somewhere in the Adelaide suburbs.  Sam is, to put it mildly, a handful.  He has intense nightmares about a monster, and makes his mother check his closet and under his bed – every night.  He brings homemade weapons to school (and fires them at a classmate), after which he is kicked out.  He throws fits.  He screams.  He kicks the backseat of her car.  He pushes his cousin out of a treehouse when she makes fun of him for not having a dad.

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One night, she tells him he can pick the book she reads to him at bedtime.  He selects Mister Babadook. “If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook,” it begins.  Amelia is increasingly alarmed as the pop-up book continues, but Sam wants her to finish it.  The Babadook is a shadowy, top-hatted creature that looks like the shadows in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  He knocks three times, and says, “Ba ba-ba  dook, dook, dooooooooooook.” Then he comes in, and takes over – never to leave.  Sam seems to see the monster, and strange things begin to happen.  She burns the book and goes to the police – who, needless to say, do not believe her.

The Babadook comes in.  He toys with Amelia for a while, frightening her so that she can’t sleep, and then he takes over.  He disguises himself as her dead husband, and urges her to bring him the boy.  Sam knows that there’s something wrong with his mother.  While she’s trying to kill him, he catches her with his homemade boobytraps. (He’s a handful, but he’s prepared.) She writhes and screams and eventually coughs up some sort of dark, bloodlike substance, and then she seems to be herself again.  Amelia screams at the Babadook to leave her son alone, and it races down to the basement to live in the shadows, among her dead husband’s things.

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Cut to: a beautiful spring day, with light streaming into the house, and Sam playing happily, gathering worms.  Amelia takes the worms down to the basement as an offering to the Babadook, whispering “it’s all right, it’s all right,” and then going back upstairs and outside to cuddle with a newly docile, happy Sam.

Obviously, The Babadook is more than a mere monster story.  It’s about grief.  The monster itself is unhinged rage, guilt, and despair – and the more Amelia denies it, the stronger it grows.  There’s all kinds of Freudian business here, including this representation of hysteria: a madman trying to get into a room, finding the door locked, and beating himself against it more and more savagely to force his way in.  The Babadook is her hysterical sadness, forcing its way into her world, turning her into a “monster.” She lives with a constant reminder of her loss – Sam – and of course he’s the one who discovers Mister Babadook. (It is inferred by the policeman that Amelia might have written it herself, in some dissociative fugue state, but I don’t think Kent means to imply as much.) She’s been living in deep melancholia for seven years, and now the grief has externalized itself, overtaking her.  Or, as Siggy himself put it in Totem and Taboo: “The punishment for the violation of a taboo was no doubt originally left to an internal, automatic agency: the violated taboo itself took vengeance.” Totem and Tababadook.  Ahem.  He also writes:

According to [Wilhelm] Wundt, this original characteristic of taboo – the belief in a “demonic” power which lies hidden in an object and which, if the object is touched or used unlawfully, takes its vengeance by casting a spell over the wrong-doer – is still wholly and solely “objectified fear”.  That fear has not yet split up into the two forms into which it later develops: veneration and horror.

Some (including Anthony Lane) have attributed The Babadook‘s remarkable effectiveness to Jennifer Kent’s being a woman. (His exact words: “Let a law be passed, requiring all horror films to be made by female directors.” For her part, Kent asks that you not make an issue of her womanhood.) Certainly, women are better equipped to understand the two forms, veneration and horror, of motherhood.  Even if the Babadook weren’t present, we would still have a pretty disturbing story about a pretty disturbed kid.  Women are supposed to accept their lot as childbearers, to revere it as their destiny, etc., etc., when in fact it’s a horrifying prospect.  You might get a sweet little kid, or you might get a raving weirdo like Sam.  Amelia has no reliable support system, no one to help her manage or understand her bizarre offspring.  She loves him because evolution ensures that she does, but she has likely lain awake many nights, thinking about how much she regrets who didn’t die in that car crash. (She tells Sam as much while she’s “possessed” by the Babadook.) I am not a mother.  I have no immediate desire to be a mother.  But I have to imagine that this deep ambivalence is pretty common: yes, you love your child; but if you’re honest with yourself, you perhaps yearn to be free again.  Amelia’s case is simply more extreme than most.

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Kent (and Davis, a wonderful actress whose talents are wasted on the inane Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries) bring other unique female insights to Amelia as well.  Men don’t always seem to understand that women yearn and pine and long as well – but Amelia does.  She watches wistfully while couples walk hand in hand, or make out in their car; she stays up watching trashy soft-core porn and soap operas, almost wistfully; she tries to masturbate once in a while – only to be interruptus by the product of her prior coitus.  One of her co-workers, Robbie (Daniel Henshall), quite obviously fancies her; but when he stops by with flowers for her and a game for Sam, her son is mid-tantrum.  Robbie quietly shows himself out.

This all paints Sam as a monster himself, but he’s living with incomprehensible grief as well.  Writing for The Atlantic, Lenika Cruz notes,

Part of [his host of behavioral issues] is just Sam being a kid. But it also turns out that his more maddening and arguably disturbing traits—the anger, anxiety-induced seizures, screaming, and risk-taking—fit the behavioral profile of a traumatized boy, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Look past the horror trope of the Satanic or disturbed little boy seen in The Omen, The Ring, and The Sixth Sense, and you’ll find a child struggling to deal with the loss of a father he never knew, and Amelia’s subsequent, deeply buried resentment toward him—in a completely normal way.

Sometimes kids in horror movies are horrifying because they’re representing something else – Regan the newly menstruating girl in The Exorcist, for instance – but Sam is just a realistic depiction of the horror of knowing that he himself is a traumatic event.  He’s a perceptive kid.  He knows his mother is sad and tired and doesn’t know how to manage him.  He knows everyone else dislikes when he’s around.  He knows his dad – to whom he tries to keep some sort of connection, even while Amelia tries to keep all his artifacts locked away in the basement – died because of him, in some way.  Between all that crushing knowledge and the way his mother has isolated them both, it’s easy to understand why poor Sam is such a handful.

All right, so it’s interesting.  Lots going on, thematically.  What about the film qua film?

Yes.  It’s a good movie.  The performances from Davis and especially from Wiseman, who is a great actor who happens to be a child and not the dreaded Child Actor, are pitch-perfect throughout.  Kent paces the film so that it’s a slow burn, without any cheap jump-scares: these are scares that work their way in slowly, and don’t leave.  Again, I haven’t seen Repulsion or Possession, but I was reminded often of the agonized insanity of isolation in The Shining as I watched: another story of a parent overtaken by some sort of destructive spirit, determined to destroy his (odd, perceptive) child.  I was also struck by the un-Australianness of Amelia and Sam’s house.  When I lived there, I found that any house or apartment with windows was fairly flooded with light.  Their house is constantly lit by pale, grey, ghostly light – light that leaves deep, dark shadows where sneaky Babadooks can hide.

Speaking of: remember what I said about the Babadook looking like a shadow out of Dr. Caligari?

Speaking of: remember what I said about the Babadook looking like a shadow out of Dr. Caligari?

As a sort of aside, there’s a brilliant scene in which Amelia is, as usual, up late staring blankly at the TV.  The Babadook has begun to assert itself, and he appears in some clips from old, old silent movies: in the midst of early examples of movie magic from Georges Méliès, there’s Mister Babadook, looking exactly like a monster in a film from sometime before World War I.

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My one qualm is the ending.  I understand its purpose: they learn to live with their grief, to acknowledge it and to lessen its power by accepting its existence.  To me, however, it felt ever so slightly rushed – even tacked on.  I don’t know how I would have preferred it to end, but I felt ever so slightly dissatisfied by how tidily everything was wrapped up.  The process from horror to veneration usually takes a little bit longer.

That is a very small nitpick, though, and I do encourage you to heed the Babadook’s cry.  Let him in.  You don’t need to sleep, do you?

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This entry was posted on December 13, 2014 by and tagged , , , , , , .
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