by Evan J Peterson
On Tuesday, we’ll wrap up the current run of SHRIEK with The Babadook, often hailed as the best horror film so far of the twentieth century, and a rare example of a female director in the horror genre.
Stats on The Babadook (2014)
Body count: (no spoilers)
Does it pass the Bechdel-Wallace test: Yes.
Major protagonists: one adult woman, one very young boy
Villains/Antagonists: (no spoilers)
Major actors: Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman
Director: Jennifer Kent
Writer: Jennifer Kent
We’re finally breaching a new era in horror. The most engaging and original horror films coming out don’t rely on extremes of gore or body count. I’ve only seen a handful in the last few years that both impressed and scared me: Ti West’s House of the Devil, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook. There are more new-millennium horror films that I love, but let’s keep this simple. While all of these films have garnered respect from the horror fan community, The Babadook is by far the mainstream crossover hit. Allow me to extol what makes this film an ultra-rare gem:
Foremost, the film is as unnerving as The Exorcist, which itself is often referred to off-handedly as the most terrifying film of all time. Like The Exorcist, The Babadook employs disarming and disquieting sound production in combination with the intimate drama of a mother slowly losing her child to either madness or supernatural evil. William Friedkin, the director of The Exorcist, even wrote a tweet-heard-‘round-the-world: “I’ve never seen a more terrifying film than The Babadook” (italics added). What’s most remarkable to me about this statement is that The Babadook is poised to inherit the mantle of The Exorcist but with barely any blood, gore, or sexuality in it. The Exorcist assaulted audiences with a possessed, hypersexual pre-teen who stabs herself in the genitals with a metal crucifix and then forces her mother’s face into her crotch. The Babadook is nearly spotless by comparison, yet equally disturbing.
Secondly, this film is a foreign production. True, it’s an English-language film, but the fact that it’s Australian can be a strike against it for American audiences, even without subtitles. Not only that, but The Babadook also has a very low budget. There are some thoroughly effective CGI monster shots, but there are few sets and no actors recognizably “famous” to an American audience. Nothing explodes. No one gets laid. No previously A-list actor is bringing facetime to the movie poster.
The film has no important adult male characters. The father is dead before the film begins, the crushy dude at work adds little to the plot, etc. Even Mister Babadook himself is not even really “male,” as he’s either a sexless shadow entity or something even less corporeal. Only Samuel (Noah Wiseman), a six year-old boy, is an essential male character. So who will the men in the audience identify with? The answer: whomever they happen to identify with.
The adult protagonist, Amelia (Essie Davis), is not only a single mother, she’s the single mother of a special-needs child with serious behavioral issues. Samuel isn’t just ADHD or a traditional “pain in the butt” kid—he may be disturbed and even dangerous. Amelia isn’t a character that wide swaths of a horror film audience can easily identify with as protagonist. She’s not a teenager or a feisty career woman or a badass. She’s a milquetoast insomniac who can neither bury the past nor control her child.
And that’s what makes this film perfect. We have a foreign female director, a low budget, no recognizable American stars, and two protagonists who are untraditional in the horror genre, and yet THE FILM WORKS LIKE GODDAMN GANGBUSTERS, and audiences LOVE IT.
Pardon my all-caps, but sometimes only all-caps will do.
Jennifer Kent does something that few of her peers, male or female, manage to do in the horror genre: she offers us very believable, very human characters suffering the rotten unfairness of everyday life, and then she scares the shit out of us.
This is a monster movie. It’s not a monster love story like The Fly, nor is it a monster opera like Candyman. The monster is a shadowy thing, only seen in glimpses, hiding under the bed and in the basement, and it is a dyed-in-the-wool monster. We’re not asked to sympathize with Mister Babadook—that is, until we start to figure out what it really is. Jennifer Kent says it’s up to the viewer to determine whether the Babadook is supernatural or psychological.
Samuel is in a dangerous role in his mother’s psychology: he’s all at once her baby, a surrogate partner to replace his father, and an unintentional scapegoat for his father’s death. Samuel arrives in Amelia’s life the night his father is killed, and in Amelia’s mind and the minds of the audience, he becomes his mother’s half-loved, half-resented companion. I love that this film handles very Oedipal material without tipping into banal and inaccurate pop psychology and overt, tiresome incest tropes.
Kent created a huge task for herself by writing a script that requires a six year-old actor in a lead role. The payoff is that this is a highly successful yet rare film—horror or not—that features such a young actor in such an essential role. It’s logical to compare it to other horror films about troubled children, but this film does things I’ve never seen.
For one, it kept me guessing. At first I was trying to figure out if Mister Babadook is real or if the character Samuel is seriously disturbed. Kent surprised me by leading me into being afraid of Samuel and questioning what Samuel is capable of, then flipping this around and revealing what’s truly going on.
Amelia is also a rare protagonist in the horror genre, a complex middle-aged single mom (like Ellen Burstyn’s character Chris MacNeil in The Exorcist). Unlike Chris MacNeil, who is an affluent, self-oriented actress with a house staff, Amelia rarely stops taking care of others. She works as blue collar nursing job then goes home and cares for her rambunctious and demanding child. Amelia is in over her head with a special-needs child, and she’s resigned herself to just doing the best she can in a difficult, lonely situation. Samuel is an isolated figure, but so is Amelia—where are her friends? She has a sister, a neighbor, and some dude at work who has the hots for her, and she seems to keep all of them at a distance.
She’s a woman with sexuality, clearly, and yet she’s not presented as “sexy.” While her friend at work has a crush on her, and she does express a unisex human need for sexual pleasure, she’s neither sexually assertive nor asexual nor objectified. She’s always tired looking, rarely in makeup or styled hair, because this movie is also about insomnia. All of these factors come together to make Amelia and Samuel intriguing and uncommon characters in an intriguing and highly rare film.
The Babadook is a triumph of indie filmmaking, and by extension it’s a triumph for women in film and for horror geeks. This is a very feminine horror film, concerned with the danger of repressed needs rather than with stabbing everything in sight. There’s no overt feminist message spelled out for the audience, yet it does some serious feminist work to get mainstream American audiences to root for a semi-famous, non-glamorous, middle-aged female protagonist who is equally likable and unlikable as she tries her best to deal with being a widow, raise a demanding child, keep her job, fight a monster, and simply get some damn sleep.
Join us this Tuesday for SHRIEK: The Babadook!
You can reserve your space in the class here.
The SHRIEK community film class is designed to offer everybody an affordable, accessible way to learn about film and women’s studies while enjoying kick-ass heroines in some of the best horror films ever made. We hope to inspire more women to get involved in film making, especially in the horror genre, where women are severely underrepresented behind the camera.
Evan J Peterson is a journalist, professor, 2015 Clarion West writer, Lambda Literary Award finalist, and author of Skin Job and The Midnight Channel.