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

… Old Movies? Disability Studies? The state of being flabbergasted?

I just watched potentially the weirdest movie ever.

I honestly don’t know how I feel about this. Here’s what Netflix said it was:

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“Director Tod Browning cast authentic circus folk, not actors, in this Greek tragedy about sideshow “freaks.” Normal-sized trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) marries diminutive Hans (Harry Earles) with plans to poison him, take his inheritance and marry the brute Hercules (Henry Victor). When the freaks uncover Cleopatra’s scheme and Hercules forces himself on an innocent girl, they gang up on the two miscreants. Wallace Ford also stars.”

For those of you who were wondering, Tod Browning also directed “Dracula” with Bela Legosi, of “Ed Wood” fame. According to multiple online sites, this is a horror movie cult classic. Weird cult classic movie legend has it, the producers at MGM saw how well Frankenstein (Paramount) did at the box office, and so they told Tod Browning, their resident Dracula-guy, to “out-Frankenstein Frankenstein.” This is what he came back with. It was marketed as a horror movie, but audiences were so disturbed by it that MGM pulled it from circulation. The film ruined Tod Browning’s career.

It was bought by someone who took movies around on a circuit (old-school porn, other “oddities” of the film world), who marketed it very much like Netflix did. I’d hazard a guess that these audiences were people in the back woods, that couldn’t afford to drive in to a bigger town to see the real hits, so they were stuck with the traveling circuit of oddities. Not having much to compare it to, it did decently.

I don’t really think it’s a horror movie – more of a love story/revenge plot. Weird combination of gags about deformed people, a truly awful person making fun of/taking advantage of Hans (the midget), and really horrific revenge. And the revenge was maybe 6 minutes of an hour-long movie. But it was seriously disturbing.

And, according to Wikipedia, a lot of scenes were deemed “too disturbing” by MGM and cut from the film. Perhaps why it’s only one hour and two minutes long? To this day, an uncut version of the film doesn’t exist – it’s lost to history.

To a modern audience, this film seems like it could be a celebration of diversity, but at the same time, it’s also definitely exploiting the people with disabilities to make a profit. Disabilities studies are close to my heart (mom is a special ed. teacher, dad had been at one point), and so I’m intrigued by the mixed feelings this movie pulled out of me. I really, really want to analyze it further, but am too tired.

I did manage to find a blog post by someone else who taught this film in their college course. Quite interesting, here’s the link. Y’all should really check it out, it’s a really good analysis of how students reacted to the film.

I definitely need to tell my 21st-Century Novel prof. about this. He’s doing a senior seminar in the English department on Disabilities studies next semester (which I’m going to try to get into), and … if he doesn’t already know about this film, I think he’d go to town analyzing/teaching it.

Much too late for me to still be awake. Time for sleeping!