FEATURE: Shocktober '15 - The Babadook

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here. Mild spoilers ahead.

Directed by Jennifer Kent and starring Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, The Babadook was one of the most critically acclaimed horrors of recent years, bursting on to screens to near universal enthusiasm. The film follows Davis as Amelia, a single mother who is still mourning the death of her husband, killed in a violent car crash as they made their way to the hospital for the birth of their son, Sam. Sam's life and her husband's death are inextricably linked with Sam's difficult behaviour plaguing Amelia's already fractured mental state. When a mysterious book, Mister Babadook, appears on Sam's shelf, Amelia is forced to confront the troubles she has been running from in the form of the sinister, ever-present Babadook. It also happens to be one of those movies that unsettles you to your core in that spine-tingling, shivering way that makes for a truly disturbing experience.

Much of that is due to the way in which the film uses the Babadook itself. It's a nebulous, almost formless presence, skittering across ceilings and looming out of the shadows without it ever really taking shape. The black space it creates becomes a locus of Amelia's terror but also a useful tool for any thematic analysis of the film. The Babadook represents her grief for her husband, taking his form and forcing her to relive his death. Other readings of the film have seen it as emblematic of depression, the symptoms of which Amelia experiences throughout the film, as well as maternal fears on behalf of her son; she is unable to cope with his strange behaviour and the Babadook gives that focus.

Kent's sparing use of the creature is an excellent move, allowing the attention to remain on the human characters at the heart of it. The best horror is always rooted in that idea of humanity, building on our most primal fears and giving them a voice that has the power to corrupt. Amelia's arc over the course of the narrative has similarities with The Shining's Jack Torrance, the Babadook representing the demon she must overcome just as the Overlook Hotel acts as the malevolent force manipulating Torrance. Both are responsible for their family's safety, their resilience tested.

The focus on the mother/son relationship feels somewhat refreshing for the genre and the intensity is maximised through their characterisation. Kent remembers that we must care for these characters in order for the shocks to land successfully, that the scares must be earned rather than forced. Essie Davis' marvellous performance is the heart of the narrative, a powerful mix of vulnerability and strength that never devolves into baseless histrionics. Even in the early scenes, her fragility is bolstered by an innate determination to keep everything going without admitting that she needs help. 

Her relationship with her son is a tempestuous one, born out of the link between Sam's birth and her husband's death, which muddies the waters somewhat in how she treats him. Noah Wiseman's wide-eyed innocence and heartfelt desire to protect his mum deepens the emotion at the heart of the film. It isn't a simple case of maternal protection, but a mutual one; she comes to realise that she needs him just as much as he needs her. It isn't something that is neatly resolved by the end of the film either, another aspect that feels genuine. Their troubled relationship has improved, but their experiences are something they will always live with rather than something that can be vanquished entirely.

It is inevitable that a certain amount of caution is needed when approaching a film as praised as The Babadook was last year; although I endeavour to ignore other views when sitting down to a film, the commentary around it inevitably colours expectations. And for this particular film, my expectations were particularly high, a mix of my own excitement and others' enthusiasm. Fortunately, Kent's film more than met them, providing an eloquent exploration of grief, crumbling relationships and depression.

- Becky

You can find the full list of Shocktober films here - links will be updated as reviews go live.

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FEATURE: Shocktober '15 - The Full List