I went into this completely blind – had an evening free and there it was on Netflix – and wasn’t expecting much. I love horror films but they’re almost always disappointing, so I rarely pluck up the courage to watch them these days. It Follows
was the last one I saw before this. Mitchell’s film was legitimately terrifying, to the point that it gave me an entire night of bad dreams, but I thought it fell apart in the last half hour or so. Like so many horror films, it just didn’t seem to have a clear sense of what it was about, what the ‘scary thing’ at its heart really was.
Then again, maybe I missed something, because it’s mystifying to me now reading similar comments about The Babadook
. This film seems so clearly and so intensely concerned with a particular issue, and everything in it – absolutely everything – seems to feed into what it has to say about the horror of that issue. It’s one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen, and indeed I can’t remember the last time a film had such a visceral and profound emotional impact on me. The last twenty minutes, including the ending, were especially harrowing.
I don’t think it’s about grief as such, but mental illness and depression. Yes, the mental illness is precipitated by grief, but the protagonist’s relationship with her sister hints that there may be deeper issues relating to her childhood, and more importantly the film emphasises how the depression is fuelled not so much by the mother’s own sense of denial as by the unwillingness or inability of others to engage meaningfully with what she’s going through. People are comfortable bringing up the topic of her husband’s death, but only to then move on from it. And I loved the various Kafka-esque authority figures. The cinematography, art direction and make-up all contributed wonderfully to the overwhelming sense that all of these people and forces ‘are’ the Babadook. There’s something very moving about the way that the frail old neighbour’s simple, spontaneous act of kindness provides the glimmer of hope the mother needs to confront and, at length, control the Babadook.
The film targets our culture’s collective sense of denial about mental illness, and shows in unflinching detail the potential consequences of such denial for the isolated, marginalised individual and her helpless dependant. We see the mother resorting to the television for some vestige of contact with the rest of the world, but the screen gradually starts to reflect her own fears back at her – an experience I would imagine many of us TV-addicts on this forum can identify with.
And the ending, far from being fudged or confused, is in its own way the scariest scene of all. There’s a terrible truth in that line from the book: ‘you can’t get rid of the Babadook’. The depression never goes away, and it gets her every time she goes into the basement, every time she plunges back into the recesses of her own mind (this is what’s happening in the final shot). Her relationship with it isn’t even a battle anymore. She speaks comfortingly to it, as though it were another child, the ‘problem child’ Sam has been until then. That’s how we know it’s more than just grief for her husband – it isn’t really her husband she’s keeping in the basement. She feeds it with earthworms, the creatures who are eating away at her insides (Sam warns her the Babadook will do this), who are dredged up and acknowledged only to be fed back into the darkness again. She can’t have those cockroaches crawling out of the wall if she wants to avoid destroying her son; but she knows they’re always there. If you’ve ever suffered from mental illness, or even just been afraid of suffering from it, you’ll understand what a great ‘horror movie ending’ this is. Perhaps it’s the best the mother can hope for, and perhaps she will be able to maintain some form of stability from now on. But she still ends up dealing with the monster in solitude, so her son won’t have to anymore. And what does it mean that he will be allowed to see the Babadook for himself ‘when he’s older’? That he too might have to learn to appease this monster as he grows up? There’s no pat solution to either’ character’s problems.
All the way through this film, I kept waiting for it to fuck something up. Will it show too much of the monster? Will it resort to cheap action-movie suspense situations at the climax? Will it drop the sympathetic treatment of mental illness and demonise the mother, thus going the way of countless exploitative horror films about ‘mad’ people? Will the ending be irresponsibly nihilistic, killing off mother and/or son with some lazily shocking twist? But it never put a foot wrong – I didn’t see a single wrong note in the whole thing. The Babadook emerges, not from a desire to scare the audience (a meagre ambition that many horror films settle for), but from a heartfelt need to come to terms with a real-life horror. The Turn of the Screw begins with an anecdote about a child who wakes his mother up, not so she can reassure him that the horrible thing he’s seen doesn’t exist, but so that he can show the horrible thing to her, and make her share it. This is what the best horror stories and horror films do, I think: it’s not a case of, ‘I’m going to scare you with this thing’, but ‘This thing scares me – I’m going to show you why’. That means the film doesn't attack you with jump-scares, but instead works hard to form a bond with you, and rewards you for going along with it.