Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman in ‘The Babadook’/Image © Causeway Films
If science fiction films show us what we fear about our future, horror films show us what we demonize now. Take last year's "Mama" and "The Conjuring." Though quite good, both channeled the feminist backlash sweeping our culture; at core, they indicted women who defy their "natural" maternal instincts. "The Babadook," the debut feature from Aussie writer-director Jennifer Kent (expanded from her award-winning short, "Monster"), may press that same bad-mommy button, but it does so with a great deal more insight and compassion - not to mention a crafty girl aesthetic. Imagine a movie hand-stitched by an Etsy queen or, better yet, a Bust Magazine editor, and we have some sense of what "The Babadook" brings to the table.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother who's struggling mightily. An eldercare nurse, she barely makes ends meet, and is still mourning her husband, who was killed en route to deliver their son, Sam (Noah Wiseman), now six years old. It doesn't help that the boy is quite a handful. With his penchant for shrill outbursts and handmade weapons, the hyperactive tyke has been pulled out of school and has alienated everyone in Amelia's life. Even before a real monster descends upon their household, then, life seems like a nightmare - an effect captured in a recurring series of quick, rhythmically intercut shots that recall the drug montages of "All that Jazz" and "Requiem for Dream." (A clever association, that.) Click: child yanks mother from a deep sleep. Click: they peer under bed for monsters. Click: they peer in wardrobe for monsters. Click: mother reads child another bedtime story. This repetition of the mother-and-child routine is like a soul-chilling metronome, and it's especially unsettling because Amelia drones on in an exaggerated version of the impatient singsong every parent uses with a kid who just won't go the f--k to sleep. (Heck, someone even wrote a book about it.)
A pop-up book mysteriously materializes in Sam's bedroom, and he demands she read it aloud. Black, white, and red, it is entitled Mr. Babadook, and it is about an Edward Gorey-like oddbot (it sports funny feet and a top hat) who frightens and possesses them. Just what the doctor ordered for the already-high-strung Sam, eh? But when Amelia tries to dispose of it, the book - you guessed it - rematerializes immediately. Life imitates art from there on in.
We have to admire a film that reveals its cards early on yet still manages to scare the bejesus out of us. With references to early cinema and magic tricks, flashes of stop-motion animation, and a diorama-like design, "The Babadook" feels so much like a pop-up children's book that it's if we're stuck inside the monster's world. Certainly Amelia's soft voice, pink clothing, and mop of strawberry blond hair paint her as a fairytale heroine - which makes it all the more terrifying when she begins to growl at her son, "If you're hungry, why don't you eat shit?" (It's even scarier because, besides Naomi Watts, Davis is the only actor around who can change her looks, even her coloring, within the same shot. Is this an Australian thing?)
All along, the child has seemed possessed - quite literally, with his shrieks, wild eyes, and spastic limbs - but we begin to wonder if the Babadook is actually emerging from the mother. Who can blame her? Even in the best of circumstances, most parents tread a fine line between resenting and loving their kids, and these circumstances are pretty bad. The Etsy tee shirt for this overburdened mum would read: My husband died on the way to the maternity ward, and all I got was this lousy kid.
Lest we think this film is unsympathetic to the modern mother's plight, small touches suggest a (deliciously) second-wave agenda: Most of the horror takes place in the kitchen, where an infestation of roaches swarm out of the wall and glass appears in the soup. (What's that 1960s Marge Piercy quote? Burning dinner is not incompetence but war!) When cautioning Amelia against overmedicating Sam, a pediatrician says, "Most mothers aren't keen on these sedatives." (What about the fathers, doc?) When Amelia gets in a car accident, another driver bellows, "And you've got a kid in the backseat!" We get it - oh, boy, do we get it: Everybody blames the mom! (Somewhere, Freud is nodding judiciously.) And when Amelia first cracks, it is at a (shudder) kid's birthday party, where her fury is directed at a flock of perfectly coiffed, well-off "supermoms" who identify with "disadvantaged women" because they also "don't always have time to go to the gym." The intersection of economics and feminism is a topic few address these days, and I admire Kent for broaching it.
Ultimately, such subversion is why "The Babadook" works so well. For all its otherworldly flourishes, it confirms that the most terrifying monsters are remarkably local - domestic, even. Finally, a horror movie has been made for DIY women (and men!) everywhere.