What Can Make a Horror Movie Very Good

The Babadook (2014, Jennifer Kent)

When a horror movie, or any movie, reaches into you and touches your buried anxieties, making you uncomfortable and disturbed, then you know you’ve watched a very good one. Unless you’ve led a life free of worry and fear, you’ll find The Babadook such a movie.

What drives The Babadook isn’t a scary creature. It isn’t the knock in the deep, dark night. It isn’t the sudden fright. Nor is it a scene of grotesqueness. No, it’s something far scarier than any of this stuff, all of which is artificial and concocted. Rather, it is the fear and loss lurking inside all of us. And even more, it’s about our ability to face and manage our greatest fears and losses, either in a healthy way, or, short of that, otherwise. The Babadook tells the story of the otherwise.

The setting is Australia, but it could be anywhere, even your hometown. Amelia Vannick is trying to put her life in order six years after the death of her husband Oskar. They were in an auto accident on the way to the hospital to deliver Samuel. It’s Samuel who seems to be exhibiting the worst effects of Oskar’s death, the loss of a father he never knew. And he senses in his childlike way just how much pain the death has caused his mother. He constantly assures her that he will protect her and has devised a weapon that catapults a ball at evildoers to make good on his promise. However, he’s an unsettled boy who suffers from a fairly common childhood fear, not just of monsters in the night, but of abandonment. His insecurities and fears manifest as unruly and, occasionally, dangerous behavior, as with an incident in school and with his cousin at her birthday party. As you can see, the film plays on some deep psychological issues.

One evening, they discover in their house a book that has passed their notice titled Mr. Babadook. While it looks like a children’s book, the black and white artwork and the scenes of mutilation and, especially, those of a family like the Vannick’s in the throes of self destruction mark it as anything but. The art here is absolutely spooky,while at the same time brilliantly mesmerizing, and translated into film action with haunting effect.

From here on in, Samuel lives in a state of stark terror as Amelia degenerates into lunacy. Oskar appears to her. She kills her beloved dog. She nearly kills her son. She battles the Babadook. In the end, she resolves her conflict and finds a sort of peace that most will agree is anything but normal and will find very disturbing.

As you watch the movie, at least one other film will immediately occur to you. And if it doesn’t, understandable, as it dates to 1965. That is Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. Repulsion remains one of the most dazzling and troubling psychological dramas in filmdom. (Jennifer Kent, writer and director, acknowledges its influence on her.) If you enjoy The Babadook, you’ll most certainly want to view a copy of Repulsion that starred a young Catharine Deneuve. c/w

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