Director Jennifer Kent would like you to know that The Babadook is “not a horror movie, or if it is, it’s a good one.” In an age where “horror has become synonymous with crap,” as Kent believes, the decision to distance herself—and her film—from a genre that consistently produces lowest-common denominator fare is not surprising. The preface has become necessary. Thankfully, Kent is operating on solid ground here. There’s a reason behind her searing indictment of modern horror and unwavering confidence: The Babadook is brilliant. Stylish, arresting, and downright frightening, Kent’s directorial debut is a beacon of hope, a welcomed respite to the big-budget franchises (Saw, Paranormal Activity, etc) that consume our multiplexes and the micro-budget balderdash (The Human Centipede) that occupies our Netflix queues.
Indeed, The Babadook does not contain a triumvirate of people linked ass-to-mouth or nocturnal specters creeping into suburban homes in the middle of the night. What it does have is a fractured relationship between a mother and a son. Amelia (Essie Davis) is a home nurse and widow tasked with raising the increasingly difficult and hyperactive Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who claims to be seeing a child-snatching boogeyman called the Babadook. When not screaming or yelling hysterically, Samuel is brandishing makeshift weapons and pushing his cousins off a tree house. Though, in 7-year-old Samuel’s defense, his spiteful relative was pointing out the absence of his father, Oskar, who died in a car accident en route to the hospital before his birth.
It’s in that moment of unforeseen violence that the film reveals its true intentions: to confront pain, or as Kent more eloquently explained, “to face the unfaceable.” Amelia must do this every day in loving Samuel—who often appears as a reminder of the irreparable past and death of Oskar. Exacerbating matters is Samuel’s hallucinations of the Babadook, who creepily whispers his name again and again until it’s permanently engraved into our brain. The monster’s anthem, which Amelia and Samuel read aloud in an ostensive children’s book, is “If it’s in a word, or it's in a look, you can't get rid of the Babadook.”
Evoking the harrowing films of Rosemary's Baby, Les Diabolique, and Let the Right One In, Kent firmly believes that “to be balanced you have to explore your dark side.” Further noting that in life, “it's very important to save the light and the dark, I don't mean dark as in Satan worshipping. Life is not just happy and fun all the time. It’s not a commercial.” Exploring the pangs of this tumultuous relationship is what most attracted Kent to this project. For the Australian auteur, The Babadook is about more than just "scaring people,” although that's a byproduct of Amelia’s predicament.
In our phone call Kent emphasized the words scaring people, as if to suggest her ambitions are greater than that of her contemporaries. “I hate to be cynical about it, but I think some of the films made are made very cynically,” she says. “They're made to make a lot of money and to get teenagers in a kind of experience, a roller coaster ride.” And it’s true: horror, one of Hollywood’s most financially bankable genres, is often tailored to satisfy the thrill-seeking proclivities of young adult audiences. “They're not made with much thought to quality of acting and direction and story,” Kent gracefully indicts, “And often these films are not made by people who understand the power of the genre.”
Generally a harangue of this nature would come off as didactic or belittling, but Kent manages to remain calm, collected, and even-handed. “I understand they will always have those films,” she says, “but every time a crappy horror movie comes out, it's harder to get people to the cinema to see a decent film.” These comments, which were impassionedly delivered in succession, felt more like plights for good film than stern critiques of contemporary cinema.
Before switching topics Kent is adamant on describing the cyclical cycle we find ourselves endlessly ensnared in when it comes to bad movie consumption: “’Oh yeah I'm going to see it, I know it'll be crap. Oh yeah I've seen it and it was crap, when's the next one?” In Kent’s eyes, this unhealthy pattern is akin to consuming junk food. “We know it's bad for us, but we keep doing it.” This repeated behavior she describes is not ungrounded. In 2014 alone, Transformers: Age of Extinction and Maleficent find themselves in the top 5 of highest grossing movies, netting over $240 million a piece. Kent isn’t entirely interested in condemnation though, contending “each filmmaker makes the film from their own level of awareness and from their own state of mind.”
Which naturally begs the question, where is Kent drawing from? “In my experience, having suffered from depression, it's often feeling like life should be better than what it is, rather than accepting what it is.” Her profound poeticism continued, “For me, The Babadook has been very positive film about integrating darkness. I wanted to give people the sense that ultimately the fear of darkness is greater than actually facing it.”
Over the course of our conversation Kent would repeatedly apologize for what she believed to be incoherent drivel, long and winding monologues with no rhyme or reason. And then she’d regroup and say something beautiful like this: “I want to give people hope, actually. It’s really important to examine the difficult stuff in ones world and ones inner life. If you don’t, you’re not only going to hurt yourself, you’re going to hurt everyone around you. Everyone has their own Babadook.”
A decade after working as a production assistant on Lars von Trier’s Dogville, it seems Kent has reflected on her past, grown from her pain, and spun it all into a rousing, raw, and honest debut. And in the best of cinema, what we see on screen reflects what’s inside the heart and mind of the filmmaker. It’s clear that Kent, like any fascinating artist, is grappling with powerful emotions: resentment toward children, mangled love, thwarted ambition. These are palpable, identifiable matters that are ingrained into the very fabric of The Babadook.
And people have identified.
Before we get off the phone, Kent stumbles and stammers until finding her footing in a heartwarming anecdote. "The most moving thing to me was this message I got saying, ‘I suffer from a bi-polar disorder, my friend suffers from depression, and we were incredibly moved by your film.’” She continues, “Another person, who lost both of his parents at age 16 in a tragic way, told me that it was the most honest study of grief that he's seen on film. And it made him want to be a director.” Comments like these are precisely the reason Kent finds, and I suspect we all find, storytelling to be invaluable. “It's the ultimate reward that's really long-lasting,” Kent says. ‘That's what storytelling can offer if its made with sincerity. And yes, even horror films can be made with sincerity.”