It’s that time again! Time to brush up on a few social skills and discuss this! And by this, I mean Australian director Jennifer Kent’s bone-chilling debut, The Babadook! Originally conceived as a 10-minute short titled Monster, The Babadook ushered in Kent as a powerhouse filmmaker, blending allegory and psychological terror into a film that fearlessly tackles grief and depression in a unique yet horrifying way.
In closing the month of women in horror – though certainly not the door – Set the Tapes own Jenn Reid and Greg Mucci discuss a film that’s probably caused a few men to consider the benefits of a vasectomy. So put the kid(s) to bed, grab a stiff drink, and join us, as we discuss The Babadook.
Greg: First off, shout out to all the single moms out there.
Jenn: Oh man, that kid is the most annoying child ever put on screen; kudos to them for pulling that off! Like, I would definitely have murdered him. I don’t blame the Babadook at all.
G: Aww you really aren’t wrong, but I feel so bad for him! It’s interesting revisiting this, because you catch a lot of the parental seams that have sort of come undone, which end up making Samuel a handful.
J: Yeah, he’s struggling as much as his mom is and doesn’t have the tools to cope or express and that just turns him into nightmare child.
G: Exactly! The first time I saw this – which was unfortunately not in a theater because the sound editing in this is just unnerving – I came away thinking that the child is a fucking menace. Though, you do get the feeling that she’s been sort of coasting under this illusion of a parent for his entire childhood, since he was born into a fatherless existence.
J: And a traumatic birth at that! Dad dies driving the mom to the hospital. She obviously blames Samuel on some level and probably never got to grieve properly, immediately having to care for a newborn.
G: Yeah, both of their worlds were thrown into oblivion without any arm room to escape. Did any of its parental anguish connect with you, on an adult level now or back as a child?
G: I’m not a parent so I couldn’t quite connect on that level, but I was definitely a difficult child for a period of time with a single parent, not sure I was quite as bad as Samuel though (although my dad may disagree)
G Oh, can we get him in here?
J: He’d probably say Samuel is an *angel* compared to me, but it’s all lies!
G: I do applaud Samuels’s inventiveness and resourceful nature, even if it’s used to assimilate homemade weapons.
J: He’s like a future Kevin McAlister, except taking down demons instead of robbers.
G: Apt comparison! Kevin and Samuel are very similar yet completely contrasting children. Samuel does what he does out of love and protection for his mother, because kids are kind of like cats in a way; they tend to see things adults don’t. Kevin was just kind of an attention seeking brat, who I also felt bad for.
J: Oh, for sure. Kevin was part of a large, overbearing family that made him defensive. Samuel only has his mother – no other family (minus a bitchy aunt and cousin) and no friends at school, so he has to save her.
G: What caught your attention the most with this viewing?
J: I think the genuine fear! The last few movies we watched were more humorous or satirical, but The Babadook goes for straight terror. The creature design is fantastic, the sound (which you mention) ramps up the tension and Essie Davis’ performance is fantastic, whether she’s being scared or scary. It’s also genuinely scary!
G: It really is! The Babadook is by definition spine tingling! It induces shivers more than any recent horror film that comes to mind.
J: I don’t scare easily, but the first time I saw it I looked away a few times — you know where you look slightly above the screen so people don’t think you’re closing your eyes or hiding or anything, but you still don’t have to fully see anything? I did that!
G: Oh totally! Where you find a spot on the screen that’s a little left of center, so you only notice what’s happening, rather than see it? Yeah, did that! But Jennifer Kent’s use of both the imaginative and the cognitive is really just impeccable!
J: Oh my god yes! The movie does a great job of not giving too much away — the Babadook is usually just shadows or a form which is a hundred times scarier! Bad creature design is like a pet peeve of mine. Insidious was so good until they show you the demon’s face and he’s just Darth Maul, but the Babadook is so just creepy looking, even though it’s relatively simple.
G: Hey, you leave Darth Maul out of this! He’s just looking for work after being thrown away by Lucas. What I love is how the film jumps between night and day as if it’s treating these two elements as set pieces, because a lot happens when the sun is up. A lot is shown and seen except the Babadook in his entire form, just pieces, like his jacket and hat, or his elongated hands. It works to create unease in this world that is very simple. But what I love about its simplicity is how Jennifer Kent paints it. The house’s interior colour in particular.
J: Yes, everything’s so well done and effective that it’s kind of insane that this is Jennifer Kent’s first film!
G: I know! It really is insane. Everything is so assured and evenly paced. There really isn’t a moment that I would cut, or a shot that feels like it lacks confidence. Also, the person who chose that colour for the walls in her house is a horror decor genius, because it maintained this balance of darkness so well, even with light pouring in. Its ability to embrace light in such a dark and foreboding manner is one of the things I love about this film. Like when its night, it feels insurmountably heavy with darkness because that colour of charcoal grey or whatever it is manipulates and uses light and darkness like it’s someone working on the film.
J: Yeah, the house itself becomes so dark and unsettling by the end, it’s a great visual cue for how the ‘monster – be it Babdook or depression – has overtaken them completely.
G: Exactly! And I love how the Babadook is a symbol of her untapped grief. It’s a grief she hasn’t really spoken about it, which she kind of feels is a triumph of sorts as to not burden others, but talking about it is so vital to living! It’s probably the most real form of terror that we’ve seen in cinemas in the past decade
J: I really like how the film is essentially about her grief, depression, anxiety etc. but doesn’t pull some “it’s all in her head, she was imagining it all along” kind of twist a lesser film might try. It’s still *about* her mental health, but by showing it through an actual monster it feels much more real, both as a horror and as a film about mental health.
G: Yeah, which she then *spoiler* keeps in her basement, because nobody really ever removes grief and depression from their lives. It just rests in a darkened place, held at bay by the forces you muster.
J: Exactly! You can defeat it, hold it back, keep it in check but you can’t get rid of the Babadook!
G: Oooo, I see what you did there! There is one scene, towards the end, that pretty much had me tearing up. Can you guess which scene?
J: Hmm, not sure. When she sees the vision of the dad? Or when the sweet old lady neighbour comes to the door like “I love and support you guys, I’m here for you!” I was like; if you kill that neighbour lady I am *out of here*!
G: Yup, that’s the one. It came in the middle of all this terror and parental harassment, and boom, it just floored me! Everything with the elderly neighbour was so grounded. It just reminded me of the gentleness that my grandma exuded and I couldn’t deal.
J: Aww, I get it. There’s something so sweet and real about their relationship – the old lady is clearly on her own without family, and they’ve sort of turned themselves into a found family where they take care of each other. She was willing to come over in the middle of the night when Samuel called, and we know that’s not easy for her!
G: Yeah, they were definitely a small family that stuck together through the thick of it all, which is interesting because that guy from work kind of bounced after he saw what her domestic life was like, which I’m sure wasn’t the first time for her.
J: Yep! Up until then it was almost like a burgeoning romance. He probably had an idea of himself as being *such* a nice guy, until he saw that she had real problems and was like “oh, I’m not into this!” Maybe I’m being harsh but he just seemed like the kind of guy who thought he was a *saint*! Like, “I’m going to hang out with a single mom, isn’t that *amazing* of me? Aren’t I the nicest man alive? What a sacrifice it is for me, a regular guy, to slum it up with a MOM!”
G: Wow, holding no punches towards…what was his name?
J: Did he have a name? I think he was just credited as Nice Guy.
G: It’s Robbie, but you were close! I mean, it certainly showed the parallels between what it’s like to imagine being a single parent to what an actual single parent is. Robbie thought it couldn’t be that bad. Oh, was he wrong.
J: Robbie got a vasectomy that day
G: Is that where he went off to? Poor guy. Maybe he went out to buy her a vibrator that doesn’t look like a payphone.
J: Who knows, maybe that’s standard vibrator in Australia? At least Robbie has somewhat of an excuse. The aunt, who is blood related, knows everything that’s going on in their life and has a kid of her own, yet is still absolutely awful to Samuel. What’s her deal?
G: Yeah, the aunt and her uppity friends were kind of the worst. I mean, our introduction to her sister is her telling Amelia that she isn’t listening. It’s obvious that there’s an undercurrent of sibling friction. I do really love how we aren’t taken further into that relationship though, because ultimately it isn’t about them. A lot of films would have explored that a little more, or wrapped it up nicely at the end.
J: Yeah, and later Amelia accuses her of never wanting to listen to *her*. It’s one of those things where each thinks the other is wrong, and has probably happened a dozen times, but constantly bubbles up. But good point, there’s no apology or redemption scene between the sisters, it’s kind of refreshing, since the sister is kind of inconsequential to Amelia’s journey.
G: Yeah, I mean, she does sort of praise her work as a writer, but I feel it’s only done so in the presence of her affluent friends so she isn’t viewed as quite a stain on herself. In the end, it’s all about the Samuel and Amelia, and this blossoming relationship they now have that may be a black rose, but it’s their black rose.
J: Right? She can’t say “my sister works in an old-folks home.” She has to brag that she’s a writer, and it’s the only time Amelia’s past as a writer comes up so it’s not like *she’s* longing for it.
G: Exactly! Plus Kent leaves absolutely no clues in their home to who Amelia was beforehand. It stands as one of the scarcest and most revealing homes I’ve ever seen, and its super effective as this sort of stage production, where everything is minimalist to convey emptiness. Like, I really can’t recall any other toys Samuel has other than traps and weapons. It’s as if everyone is defined by their emotions: grief, depression, love, horror
J: It’s a very cold and stark home for a child. Not many toys, no keepsakes or family photos. And then there’s the basement, where she locks all her feelings.
G: Yeah, her feelings, and her past life, almost as if to prevent Samuel from getting to know his father through photos, or keepsakes.
J: Definitely. It’s too hard for her to look at or think about anything relating to her husband, but she can’t see how shutting out that part of them is hurting Samuel.
G: Yeah, grief, even before assuming the face of horror, lives as this monster that removes any shade of who you really are.
J: And she’d been wallowing in it for years! Samuel was about to turn seven! That’s a long time to bottle everything up.
G: Oh for sure, but with the way Kent utilises time, you get the feeling that Amelia’s perception of time is a bit altered.
J: Ooh yes! Like how some days or nights would flicker by her in seconds. Amelia probably didn’t realise how long she’d been feeling numb to the world. Also now that Sam’s older and asking questions, he probably exacerbated things for her.
G: Like she never really knew she had a problem until it started making noise, like the imaginary bugs behind the fridge; only when she started to take care of it did it disappear.
G: Before we wrap this up, what’s your favourite scene?
J: Oh that’s a tough one! The first that comes to mind is when she’s flipping through the popup book, that magically reappeared, and has those creepy and amazing drawings of her killing her son and then herself. It’s such a mind-fuck, and the exact moment the movie was like, “I didn’t come to play!” What about yours?
G: Ooh, that’s a great moment! I’d probably have to say it’s when she’s doing dishes and notices the Babadook in the room with her elderly neighbour! It’s a really unassuming scene that doesn’t attempt to play any tricks on you; instead just showing that grief is something that lives elsewhere, and that can live with others.