The Tactile Horror of “The Babadook”

If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the babadook …

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I didn’t see a trailer before I went to see this film. I would suggest that you don’t either. It is best taken in as a surprise, and as a whole. None of this renting on Amazon prime and watching it while you surf the ‘net. Find yourself a showing if possible. That also means I don’t want you to continue reading if you’re planning to see it.

I mean it. Scram.

The Babadook is lauded as one of the best horror movies to come out in some time. It’s a classic story with a twist: Amelia is a mother consumed by grief and a troubled son (Samuel). He finds a book that promises a boogeyman will come, the monster arrives, and the two of them must fend it off. This could, in less capable hands, have been a standard film. Things that go bump in the night are a dime a dozen in the horror world, so what makes The Babadook different? In-camera special effects and complex performance.

Director Jennifer Kent was committed to using in-camera effects. That means she eschewed computer graphics (CGI) in favor of puppetry, stop-motion animation, and very good props. This means that for the audience, every part of what you see on screen is something that could happen. There could be a pop-up book like “The Babadook” in your life. A particularly nasty friend could play tricks on you with puppetry that looks like the babadook. Like I said earlier, this is a monster you could reach out and touch.

And poof – it will become just another coat on the rack. Until it’s ready to manifest again.

Unlike what we are used to seeing these days, The Babadook is a very tactile film. It is shot more like “Oscar-bait,” less like a horror movie. The lighting and set/costume design work together seamlessly to create a battle between light and dark. The way the film is lit, it makes you notice the subtle textures on the screen. It makes you feel like you could reach out and touch it. babadookbook

The Babadook enters the home through a graphic pop-up book, which sets the aesthetic for the rest of the movie. The filmmakers placed emphasis on this prop through sound effects – the first time Amelia reads part of the book to Noah, a high-pitched tone sits just at the background of consciousness. When she closes the book briefly, the tone goes away, but as soon as she opens it it comes back.

The creature itself, much like the illustrations in the book, looks like something out of an Edward Gorey illustration. The long coat and top hat fit in well with horror tropes dating back to the earliest film from the 1800s. In fact, the design and feel of the entire movie revolved around the book. Kent found a young American illustrator to do the work, and designed the film around the book. This further gives it an immersive quality.

Kent cites her primary influences as classic horror, particularly from the 1970s and 80s, but also wanted to bring some elements of very early horror to the work, visually citing Nosferatu and Vampyr. When crafting the effects for the film, Kent said she wanted to mimic the old silent era – she even superimposes images of the Babadook over Georges Melies’ short films, paying tribute to the man she calls “the grandfather of special effects.”Screenshot (1)

These old films relied on puppetry and stop motion. Stop motion animation can be credited to Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton, who filmed The Humpty Dumpty Circus in 1897. Georges Melies and other early filmmakers drew heavily fromexperience in the theatre, and their effects seemed magic. Looking back, many of these early films have the feeling of a pop-up book, and the effects in The Babadook feel like they come directly out of the book Noah finds. The stop motion effects and puppetry are essential to creating the feeling of complete immersion in the world.

The effects used to create the monster also serve to increase suspense as you move through the film. The trick to creating a satisfying climax is to keep suspense through the film, and escalate the sense of danger. The first time you see the babadook, it’s in a book. The second time, it is a curious collection of clothes assembled against a wall. As the film progresses and the mother denies the babadook, it does indeed become stronger – it moves from being a coat on a rack, to sounds in the night, to a puppet, a monster that crawls on the ceiling, and ultimately possessing Amelia. In the final scene, as Amelia goes in to the basement to feed the monster, you don’t even get to see it – it has lost its physical, in-camera power.

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This aesthetic would not be the same if she had crafted a monster using CGI effects. CGI horror relies on jump scares and crafting the perfect monster – and often, these don’t build the deep psychological horror that comes from seeing our darkest selves on screen. Often, people are more terrified of what they see in the mind’s eye – a detailed demon crafted from CGI may frighten you once, but it won’t haunt you.

The tactile effects also serve to amplify the performances of Essie Davis (Amelia – the mother) and Noah Wiseman (Samuel – the troubled son). The filmmakers weren’t worried about how many tentacles came out of the babadook’s overcoat, they were worried about creating a lasting impression of terror.

Davis shows from the beginning of the film her character’s self-doubt, hatred, and confusion. She is a terminally exhausted mother, doing her best to raise her son through her grief. She is constantly pushing Sam away from her, at the same time that she tends to him in obligation. It almost comes as a relief later in the movie when she snaps and starts to yell back at him. As time progresses, and Amelia becomes more possessed by the babadook, she also finds strength. Once she exorcises the babadook away from possessing her, she is able to keep some of the strength she gained from the experience to banish it.

Finally, Kent’s masterpiece demonstrates an unprecedented knowledge of classic horror. Not only does she reference classic horror aesthetically, but she turns the tropes on their head. The babadook is ultimately a boogeyman. In all the classic folklore, the boogeyman comes for the child and leaves, whereas the babadook moves in. Kent reverses the trope of the weak woman who crumbles in the face of terror. In some ways, The Babadook is an interesting counterpoint to Rosemary’s Baby. Where Rosemary shrinks and loses control of her world, ultimately trapped by the baby and the witches, Amelia becomes stronger and ultimately conquers her demon. She can move more freely in the world, as long as she keeps the Babadook in the basement. It’s an obvious metaphor for any of us dealing with trauma: it never leaves, but you can conquer it.

Good horror is born out of our worst, most personal fears. The Babadook feeds off of emotions we aren’t allowed to talk about in society. Everyone wants to believe that motherhood means unconditional love – but what about your deepest nightmares that your loved ones don’t really love you? What happens when it gets hard – when resentment overpowers a mother? And how can you live with yourself when it happens to you? Kent keeps these themes close, strangles you with them, and dares you to breathe a sigh of relief.

I, for one, am very excited to see where she goes next. If you would like a taste of the babadook, but don’t know if you can commit to the full thing, check out Kent’s short film Monster.

check out the official website here

Interviews with Kent:

Empire Online

SBS

Den of Geek

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