By: Akram Shaban
Fear, this may shockingly come to you, is subjective. Different people (get this) experience fear differently. Take a moment or two to absorb this remarkable revelation that I totally came up with all by myself. But however variable the experience of fear may be from person to person, one thing holds true for everyone, which is, what fear is not. If your idea of a scary movie is, I don’t know, Paranormal Activity, then I disagree with you. Now if that franchise is your favorite of all time and you were just offended by my statement, I don’t really care all that much. But I do care about your thoughts on the next little bit. Jump scares are not the manifestation of fear. They are the simple exploitation of our natural fight or flight response and blah blah blah. Original stuff, I know! True fear, as you may have deduced, is complex in a different way. It’s deeper. It makes you think that you’ve lost your mind. You can’t tell me that’s what you experience while watching a shaky-cam, found-footage home movie. On a side note, “footage” is by definition scripted. Anyway, The Babadook is fear.
The critically acclaimed The Babadook is an Australian-Canadian psychological horror directed by Jennifer Kent. Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, beautifully portray a mother and son who are trying to live a normal life. Holding the mother back is the memory of her deceased husband, who was killed while driving Davis’ character as she went into labor. Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West, and Ben Winspear appear in supporting roles.
The plot (without spoilers) follows the mother and son as they struggle to cope with the unexplained torment that befalls Sam (Wiseman). He’s loud and quite frankly annoying, always keeping Amelia (Davis) awake at night. Also contributing to her sleep apnea are constant nightmares about the night of the accident when her husband was killed. One night she asks Sam to choose a book from the shelf to read as a bedtime story. He picks Mister Babadook. She reads it.
What distinguishes this movie from the rest, is the intention to actually make us afraid. One avenue it takes to achieve that end is the acting. You hear many complaints about child actors having no place on the big screen because of their inability to do anything. While I’ve acknowledged some of the subjects for that complaint, I’ve always rejected the generalization. Recent movies have proven that children can measure up to their task. Noah Weismann is no exception. He truly delivers on his role as a manic, terrified, almost autistic in nature, and tormented boy who is misunderstood by the only person who matters, his mother. At times, I really thought “someone should shut this kid up,” but in a good way. Later in the film, when his behavior calms down (which is in a way transferred onto his mother), he shifts his tone to this now confused and genuinely concerned son who wants to overcome the evil which haunts his family.
Essie Davis also puts forth a captivating performance as the sleep deprived mother who’s desperately hanging on to her sanity as the Babadook haunts her. Whenever you see her face, her eyes especially, you can’t help but feel the same yearning for sweet, sweet, rest. One crucial thing both actors succeed at doing is allowing the audience to project their own emotions and experiences on to them. Everyone relates to the childhood fear of the invisible scary monster; To see an adult, like you and me, relive the fear, but from a more mature perspective, is truly frightening and enlightening. Enlightening because adults equip children with defensive measures against beings they believe to be imaginary. Now that the monster is real, how does the adult reconcile those contradictions? Do you use defensive measures? While the adult overthinks the scenario, the child takes action. This dichotomy is expertly portrayed by the two actors.
If there was a soundtrack in the film, I did not notice it, which is a good thing. Subtle sounds that build up and fade away seamlessly are not for your conscious mind to enjoy. No friend, it’s for your heart to bear, literally. Tension building music raises your heart rate, enhancing the experience of fear. The more seamless, the more your body responds, the better. You feel the sound in The Babadook.
Finally, the plot. I can’t explore its themes without spoiling its precious goodness. But I will tell you this. Ever since the guy who invented existentialism made that word go mainstream, our (western) views about fear and invincibility have changed. I, as far as I know, think that fear used to be (in some way or another) associated with invincibility. We just accepted when we were told that some things are simply unbeatable. Then brutal war and turmoil took place and we stopped being, in a way, naïve. Now we’re more skeptical, more open to other possibilities about truth, and we question our beliefs. This is true pertaining to fear. If we let fear overcome us, we let it be invincible. But we don’t have to do that. We can confront it and say to fear “come one step closer and you will regret it.” Keep that in mind when you watch and re-watch this masterpiece.
It is a proper scary movie. It gets an A.