The Babadook (2014)


Old school horror books often focused on plotlines where an inner psychological trauma became manifested in a physical evil. Metaphorically, this plot generates a lot of appeal because it mimics the worst of the human condition: neurotic and blinded to our own inner corruption, we humans have a tendency to act out our psychological dysfunction on the world. The horror story takes this only one step further by mythologizing it, and putting abstract dysfunction into a visual form so we can recognize it, unlike when it remains within us.

The Babadook takes on this plot family — comparable to riff archetype in metal — and makes of it a movie that is one-half tedium and one-half incoherence. It holds up the metaphor reasonably well, but loses sight of its purpose early on, and like many movies with female directors, concentrates on “atmosphere” to the point of making the audience lose sympathy for the characters. Although it brings itself full circle without pandering to the easy options for plot conclusion, such as character insanity or dream, its failure to make sense of the challenge to the main character, Amelia, renders the storyline into gibberish at the end.

The setup is simple: Amelia has a son, Samuel, who was born on the day her husband died. The husband, Oskar, was killed in a car crash on a rainy night as he drove Amelia to the hospital to birth Samuel. Seven years later, she still becomes morbid and withdrawn as the day that Samuel was born approaches. The child, on the other hand, never has a guilt-free birthday party. Working the standard pointless modern job, and struggling with her own inability to snap out of her reverie, Amelia struggles with the more profound problem of Samuel, who acts like a child with severe emotional problems. As the movie goes on, both Amelia and Samuel essentially retreat or are exiled from the world as their increasingly bizarre and dangerous behavior threatens others.

During the midst of this, Samuel finds a pop-up book that tells the story of a creature called the Babadook. The book is written in annoying sing-song rhyme, but it makes its point that is essential to the metaphor of the story: the more you deny the presence of the Babadook, the more he takes over you. The obvious analogy to grief itself, and the inability to escape or unwillingness to give up prolonged mourning, shows us the weakness in Amelia that allows evil to enter… or escape. In some of the most tired plot devices in horror, the book keeps re-appearing after being destroyed or hidden, adding new lines to the rhyme as life falls apart for Amelia and Samuel.

Like many other modern films, The Babadook features characters who are chronically sleep-deprived. This bit of realism resonates with audiences, so many of the newer generation of psychological horror films adopt it. Here it is worn to death and repeated to the point of tedium during the first half of the film. At the midpoint of the film, everyone changes roles. Samuel, the useless and destructive child, suddenly becomes responsible. Amelia suddenly spaces out and becomes useless. Unfortunately for all viewers of this film, the remaining “suspense” repeats the same three techniques very slowly so we understand the atmosphere, and as a result avoids sheer tedium but replaces it with predictability and storyline nonsense as characters undergo brain damage in order to allow the plot to stay together. That and gratuitous (and mostly ineffectual) pet death are supposed to shock us into dropping our iPhones into our arugula salad and calling our husband who are working late at their corporate jobs, in hysterics at how “shocking” it all is. Except that it is not. It is babble.

This film could have been great because the metaphor resonates with us all in this time of intense victimhood. For it to do that, however, it would have to overcome its favorable view of victimhood and get serious about its own metaphor, producing a creature that is believable which mimics grief in its ability to consume people, instead of just making them go crazy and act completely against common sense, which makes it impossible for the audience to identify with them. The plot needed a careful structuring to show the reason for the projection of grief into this creature, and then needed some kind of plot device that defeats the evil. It has neither of these. It hides behind sloppy screenwriting which it justifies with the idea that it enhances the mystery or atmosphere, but it does neither. This script is incomplete and what was there did not stretch for the full length of the film.

The Babadook falls short of not only its own potential, but the standard it would need to meet for the experienced suspense-horror audience, but could easily have achieved greatness. The acting — especially by Essie Davis as Amelia — is very well-executed. Cinematography does not strike an excessive note, nor does it stand out as particularly excellent, but it rises far above mediocre. The problem of the storyline dooms this film. “Atmosphere” serves as a cop-out for what really needed to be done: to tell the story of grief and self-pity with an unblinking eye, and by showing us that psychology as a metaphorical monster, revealing what must be done to defeat that crippling choice and sensation in ourselves.

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11 thoughts on “The Babadook (2014)”

  1. Richard Head says:

    Brett, it appears that you were looking for things that had no business being in the movie as well as seeing things that weren’t there. The movie never glorified victimhood. It does rely on atmosphere because it is a movie and that’s how shit works in movies; atmosphere intensifies the thoughts and emotion that the actors portray to provide the audience with a metric with which we gauge the profundity of the sitauations that the character find thenselves dealing with and reacting to. Very weird complaint considering how you acknowledge right off the bat that Babadook is a movie structured very typically for its genre.

    Also too bad that you missed the most convincing and horrible part of the story; the conclusion that grief is interminate, it cannot be destroyed, trauma is a cyclic experience, sacrifices must be made to compartmentalize the horrific memories that threaten to resurge and overwhelm one at any moment (if not pacified).

    Obviously the main character’s behaviour is irrational; she is aware of that herself in the fleeting periods of clarity she gains when shocked awake by some atrocity he commits. That’s really the horror of the movie; her actions make no sense to us but they are quite realistic when compared to someone who is experiencing episodes of psychotic surges and, according to Jungian thought, totally possible in her situation.

    Just watched this movie last week and was looking forward to a review from you but am disappointed that you dismiss the movie so easily even though it is perfectly effective at doing exactly what it is intended to do.

    1. Also too bad that you missed the most convincing and horrible part of the story; the conclusion that grief is interminate, it cannot be destroyed, trauma is a cyclic experience, sacrifices must be made to compartmentalize the horrific memories that threaten to resurge and overwhelm one at any moment (if not pacified).

      Not to wax too Buddhist here, but you are confusing the grief for the reaction to it. We control our reactions to life, even when it is ineffably lugubrious

      1. Richard Head says:

        Not when you go crazy. Then you don’t control any aspect of your life. That’s what the scary part of the story was. The movie is an exploration of how unacknowledged trauma appears to take on a character of “otherness” in our own minds BUT it is horror/suspense movie so there had to be a threat; the result of that “otherness” being nurtured in the subconscious is irrationality, irresponsibiltu, delusion, physical sickness, and finally (in Emilia’s case) insanity. That’s a threat that is scary because it is extremely realistic.

      2. Richard Head says:

        Anyway, it’s a little misleading (to the readers who wouldn’t have figured this out themselves) to give the movie low marks just because the lead charactets failed to uphold some righteous principle that you were searching for in a place that you should not have expected to find anything of the sort (cinema). The movie works because it is about “normal” people. “Normal” people make nonsense decisions day in and day out due to dissonance between psychic components that are supposed to be working together but have been compartmentalized. Emilia is one of those “normal” people and the movie does a great job of warning us what could happen if we take this compartmentalization method of dealing with trauma too far.

        1. just because the lead charactets failed to uphold some righteous principle

          That’s a misreading of my criticism and a standard fallacy (literally, a straw man).

          My point is that the movie is mediocre because its storyline is incoherent and it failed to develop its ideas into anything interesting.

          That would be the same critique of any movie, for any storyline that failed to do the same.

          The movie fails to make a coherent point, and since it recognizes it must curry an audience, it panders to weakness instead.

          This was just a bad/stupid film, not an ideological one at all.

          1. Richard Head says:

            I just don’t see what you’re seeing when you say the movie panders to weakness.

            I also don’t see the incoherence. The movie follows a plot and the characters react realistically to the situations; that’s as coherent as it needs to be. Real-life situations don’t have elegantly overlapping character and story arcs, clear-cut villains and neat resolutions. This movie was more realistic for avoiding those things and presenting a series of situations connected by vague shifts in mood, much like real life. It sounds like you expect a more theatrical story line but that would have pushed the story and characters further into an realm that is obviously more metaphorical and distractingly so.

  2. Murph says:

    Look me in the eye and tell me this isn’t the greatest heavy metal song ever written, you fucking pussies:

    1. ODB says:

      What a great album, what a great streak! Bury me besides the endless sea, raise my ashes to the wind. Remember things I conquered in my time, quench my funeral pyre with wine!

      1. Murph says:

        A great streak indeed. And who could have expected it? An 80’s metal band who’ve been around since the beginning of the genre releasing their strongest material–material that rivals the best of anything Judas Priest or Iron Maiden has ever done–in 1994-5? Such a thing is unheard of.

        Anyway it’s good to see VS getting some lovin’ ’round these parts. What are your thoughts on the House of Atreus albums?

  3. ODB says:

    The best thing about this movie was the unconventional mother-son dynamic maintained for the first two-thirds. Mothers can’t possibly love their annoying brats all the time. Psychological horror like this, however, is always prone to some convenient plotting based on the writers’ whims and weaknesses. The Babadook ultimately goes nowhere.

  4. aaa says:

    “Like many other modern films, The Babadook features characters who are chronically sleep-deprived.”

    They all do this, especially TV series. I really don’t get why. Also, being actually sleep deprived (as either a medical condition or the CIA torture method; only experienced the former) isn’t what it looks like. You can’t do anything, you can’t think, and only want to finally die.

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