Magazine | February 9, 2015, Issue

Things That Go Bump

Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman in The Babadook (Causeway Films/Smoking Gun Productions)

Horror movies are rarely critical darlings, and horror movies released during the height of prestige-movie season even less. But the Australian import The Babadook has worked its way under the skin of a great many reviewers, and even clawed its way onto a few critics’ year’s-best lists. As awards-season movies go, it’s true counterprogramming: Aussie-accented dialogue, no-name stars, low-tech scares, apolitical and intimate themes, and only two characters who really matter — well, two characters plus one uninvited guest.

The characters are a mother, Amelia (Essie Davis), and her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who live together in a creaky, underpainted, down-at-the-heels house somewhere Down Under. They have, let’s say, some issues: Amelia’s husband was killed in a car accident while driving her to the hospital to give birth, and it’s quite clear that almost seven years later she hasn’t come to terms with that catastrophe. Their shadowy basement, where Samuel isn’t supposed to play or even tread, is a curated archive of her husband’s things, and her life feels frozen into misery: Once a writer, she now works among the almost-dead at a nearby nursing home, and her social circle has dwindled to her exasperated sister, who finds Amelia’s home too depressing even to visit, and a friendly but Parkinson’s-afflicted old woman who lives next door.

Her boy, not surprisingly, is not an easy child to love: He’s creative and imaginative but also prone to violent acting out, often involving the makeshift weapons (darts, slingshot) he’s built for warring against various unseen monsters. Soon after the movie begins — with his seventh birthday looming — his weaponry gets him into trouble (yet again, it seems) at school, prompting a painful parent–teacher–headmaster conference that ends with Amelia withdrawing him entirely, constricting their circle further still.

Into this precarious domestic situation comes — or, probably more aptly, out of it emerges — a strange red pop-up book called “Mr. Babadook,” which Samuel plucks off their bookshelf at bedtime and his frazzled mother reads. The pop-ups are black-and-white, chalk-and-charcoal, with images that look vaguely Edward Gorey–ish, and they introduce a top-hatted creature who first peeps out from behind a door, his claw waving “Hello,” then shakes the inside of a wardrobe (“a rumbling sound then three sharp knocks . . . that’s when you’ll know that he’s around”) that looks a great deal like the one in their bedroom, and then . . . well, suffice it to say that things get scary enough that Samuel ends up caterwauling and the book ends up torn up in the trash.

Unfortunately (if predictably) that doesn’t get rid of its protagonist. “If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look,” the book informs its readers, “you can’t get rid of the Babadook,” and sure enough it’s true: Soon he has become the only monster that the boy wants to talk about, and then he makes the leap into Amelia’s reality as well, announcing his presence with knocks at the door, rumblings in the night, and phone calls in which his rasping voice says “Ba . . . Ba . . . Dook” and nothing more.

How much Amelia’s reality corresponds with actual reality is left mostly up for grabs. She and her son are both dealing with insomnia already, and after he has a particularly severe meltdown she arm-twists the doctor into supplying her with sedatives, which drops a further haze of unreality over their house. She sees things nobody else does — roaches crawling out of a hole in the kitchen wall, which closes up the instant a couple of bureaucratic visitors arrive; the Babadook’s coat and hat hanging in a police department to which she pays a fruitless visit — and at various points things that we assume are really happening turn out to be part of her dreaming state, conjured up while she dozes in front of silent-era horror movies on her flickering TV.

But if the Babadook is, like many a poltergeist, some kind of psychological projection or emanation, he isn’t the work of her own sleepless mind alone. It’s Samuel who sees him first, and the monster looms up out of the interplay between mother and child: They’re each the monster to the other, so he’s in the words and looks of both of them, which is why neither one can deal with or get rid of him alone.

Wiseman has a great face for horror, and for this specific part: With bulging child-eyes, a huge white face, and a toothy mouth, he’s all aching need and unavoidable reality, popping up like — well, like a horror-movie creature, whenever his mother thinks she’s got a moment’s peace. Meanwhile, Davis gives us a female variation on what Jack Nicholson did in The Shining: the parent invaded and possessed, except that in her case the problem isn’t alcoholism but motherhood itself, the terrible grind of being alone with a human being for whom you’re absolutely responsible but whom you simply can’t manage to control.

How highly you rate the movie will depend on what you think of the ending, which might be brilliant or might over-literalize the story’s psychological theme. I’m still unsure which I think it is, still turning the question over in my mind. But I suppose that uncertainty is itself a vindication of the movie’s promise, since it means that I, too, can’t get rid of the Babadook.

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