So, it was with some degree of excitement that I sat down to watch Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014), which generated huge buzz at Sundance way back in January and then, thanks to the vagaries of the film distribution business, didn’t become available to us out in the provinces until much more recently. The Babadook follows the tribulations of an Australian widow and her six-year-old child as they become subject to the persecutions of the titular Babadook. The Babadook is a figure in a children’s book that the child, Samuel, discovers on his shelf (his mother never bought it for him, its origins are a mystery) and which he insists on having his mother read to him as a bedtime story. It goes something like this: “If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, / You can’t get rid of the Babadook.” And the Babadook is this black glowering monster with claws who can be seen hovering over the bed of a poor child not unlike Samuel. Samuel is traumatized by the book (understandably) and becomes convinced that the Babadook is haunting him and his mother, and things go downhill from there.
|He looks friendly.|
And the Babadoook couldn’t have arrived on the scene at a worse time, become the mother, Amelia, is stressed at her nursing home job, her son has a bunch of behavioral problems, and she still hasn’t gotten over the death of her husband. And this is where my problem with the movie begins, because this is a type of horror movie that I’ve become all too familiar with over the years; it is horror predicated upon irritation and frustration. I would say that a good bulk of the film is devoted to distinctly prosaic problems in the lives of Amelia and Samuel, which build upon each other with nightmarish relentlessness: Samuel doesn’t know how to socialize with other children, he assaults and terrorizes his cousin, he embarrasses Amelia in front of the neighbors, her boss thinks poorly of her, she gets in a minor car accident and the guy in the other car is a dick to her, etc, etc. What I’m looking for in horror is something Lovecraftian, and I cannot think of any episode in Lovecraft where the protagonist gets his car towed because he was parked in a pick-up/drop-off only section outside the Miskatonic University library, where he was perusing the Necronomicon.
The horror presented in The Babadook is the kind of horror that appeals to people who don’t actually like horror movies. “Oh look, a horror movie without gore or jump-scares,” they say, “how nice.” And yes, that’s all well and good, but even without those things you can still have cosmic horror, not profoundly mundane frustrations and vexations. I suspect the critics also feel that this film is “deeper” than genuinely frightening horror films because it’s invested so much in the emotional lives of its characters, at the expense of everything else. As if this was a family drama. Different genres do different things. Horror films are supposed to horrify; if they can also explore a troubled mother-child relationship, fine, but they mustn’t do that exclusively.
The Babadook is especially disappointing because it had the potential to be so much better. The titular monster, when we get to engage with him, is scary as fuck (the design of the children’s book where he makes his first appearance is probably the highlight of the movie). But it seems like every time the film is about to get intense, it switches gears and brings us a scene of Samuel persecuting his poor mother by mocking an elderly neighbor’s Parkinson’s disease to her face or pushing his little cousin out of a tree house and breaking her nose. And that’s not horrifying, it’s just annoying.