Film Analysis: “The Babadook”

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After watching Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark”, Jennifer Kent wrote the director an email expressing her willingness to learn from him. At one point she pointed out that she would rather stick pins into her eyeballs than go to film school. She must’ve said something right, because he replied with an invitation to his “Dogville” set. The idea was to let her watch and learn, and let me assure you, watch and learn she did.

The young Australian’s feature film debut, “The Babadook”, is the horror film of the year and probably the best horror film to come out since “Let the Right One In”. Now, that may not be saying much since the horror genre hasn’t been all that impressive lately, but it really is a rather brilliant film. Here’s a horror film that strays away from cheap thrills, and taps into something real, a real human fear- grief, anxiety, and depression.

If you watch the trailers, you will most probably write it off as just another run-of-the-mill Boogeyman film. At least, this is how I felt when I first encountered the trailers, but then all the five-star reviews started rolling in and I had to give the film a shot. I remember walking out of the theater with mixed feeling. However, the more I thought of the Babadook, the deeper it sank into my psyche. The Babadook is knitted from the same cloth as the greatest horror films of all time from “Rosemary’s Baby” to “The Shining”. It scares you long after you’ve walked out of the theater; it lingers in your thoughts and crawls under your skin. You won’t be able to shake off the unnerving feeling this film gives you for days after the initial viewing. That said, it does require thought and analysis, and it is only after you attempt to understand what it all means that’ll start haunting you.

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Essie Davis delivers one of the strongest lead performances of the year as a widow haunted by the memory of her husband, who died in an accident on their way to the hospital to deliver their baby. The story begins years later. Amelia is constantly stressed out and exhausted. Most of her time is spent looking after a kid “with significant behavioral problems”. The troubled boy is also relentless in his fantasy; a monster he believes will eat his mom from the inside out.

Amelia skims through clips of silent George Melies shorts late at night on her living room TV. Melies is a filmmaker who believed filmmakers are like magicians performing a grand illusion to audiences using cinematic tools. Magic is a big theme in “The Babadook”, and the whole film feels like it’s magic trick. At first, Kent tricks us into thinking we’re about to watch a film about a problematic disturbed child who has access to another demonic dimension, but as soon as the Babadook creeps into their home, we begin to suspect that the problem isn’t with the child, but rather the mom. The final reveal will have many scratching their heads wondering what they’ve just seen and more importantly what it all means.

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The deeply disturbing demonic figure known as the Babadook erupts into their lives around the anniversary of her husband’s death, which coincides with her son’s birthday. The reading of an old children’s pop-up book titled “Mister Babadook” is what essentially unleashes hell upon them. The book is brilliantly designed with disturbing illustrations clearly influenced by German Expressionism. In fact, the creature resembles a character you’d see in “Nosfertu” or “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”. Kent is well versed in the roots of the horror genre; she knows her films proudly her references up her sleeves. It kind of gives her film historic weight.

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The aspiring filmmaker pitched her idea through Kickstarter and raised $30,071. Most of her budget was used to cultivate the art direction of the film. With a budget so small, Kent managed to create a horror film that very much looks and feels more authentic and spooky than any horror film to come out this decade. I will now proceed and reveal what I think the Babadook stands for. If you don’t want the ending spoiled, I strongly suggest you stop reading and I hope you return to this review after witnessing one of the most talked about endings in a long time.

The malevolent Babadook is basically a physicalized form of the mother’s trauma. What it stands for is up for debate. I believe, the Babadook embodies the destructive power of grief. Throughout the film, we see the mother insist nobody bring up her husband’s name. She basically lives in denial. Amelia has repressed grief for years, refusing to surrender to it. Here lies the mastery of Kent’s film; it is frightfully clever because not only is it based on something very real, it is feels unusually beautiful and even therapeutic.

“If it’s in a word or in a look. You can’t get rid of the Babadook. I’ll wager with you. I’ll make you a bet. The more you deny, the stronger I get. The Babadook is growing right under your skin”The-Babadook-2

Throughout the film, Amelia tries to hide the book and even burn it at one point, only to have it and the monster latched on to it reappear. Denying a traumatic memory and pretending it never happened to avoid dealing with grief only works for so long, before it eats you from the inside out, and you release it all in the form of a mental breakdown.

Amelia avoids pictures of her husband and flips out when someone utters his name, the actions of a woman in complete denial. You can’t get rid of your past, but you can learn to live with it, and that’s exactly what our main character does by the end of the film.

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We see her feed the Babadook in the basement. The basement is where her husband’s stuff is locked away. By feeding the Babadook, she metaphorically feeds her grief. Rather than completely shutting it off and locking it away, she keeps it at bay. She controls and manages the monster the second she acknowledges that you can’t escape your past; you can only learn to live with.

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14 responses to this post.

  1. Excellent analysis and a great movie as well! The Babadook is way better than Ouija and Annabelle and all that other horror crap that came out this year.

    Reply

  2. Posted by andrea on December 7, 2014 at 7:13 am

    Great analysis, in line with what I took from the film. I would just add that by feeding her grief, she is actually transmuting it into something that can nourish as oppose to destroy her soul (she fed it a bowl of earthworms in soil–worms change the environment of soil, decomposing dead organic matter and turning it into nutrition that brings forth and sustains new life). Also, the basement where she keeps her husbands things represents her subconscious mind…

    I loved this film as well.

    Reply

  3. […] a tormented protagonist who may or may not win at the end. The Babadook surprised me (literally). One critic calls it an actualized form of the mother’s grief of losing her husband while giving birth to her son. My […]

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  4. Found this after posting my own analysis of The Babadook. Great article you have here! Loved your connections to German Expressionism and classic cinema too. Check out my review when you get the chance. https://thecinephiliac.wordpress.com/2015/05/30/the-babadook-2014-and-further-musings-on-mind-body-and-disease/his review after posting one for myself

    Reply

  5. Posted by Neopeland on June 28, 2015 at 10:44 pm

    Great analysis, pretty much sums up everything in the movie. I love movies like this as it has a deeper meaning into things.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Evan on September 10, 2015 at 1:27 am

    I completely agree with you about this film and I think your analysis is spot on. My one quibble (which I’m going to focus on even though it’s just a quibble – it’s the reason I wanted to respond) is with your contention that “the horror genre hasn’t been all that impressive lately.” It’s one of those things that’s been repeated for so long that I think people just accept it at face value even though it hasn’t been true for some time; if we do accept it as true, I have to wonder how long “lately” is. The fact is, horror has *always* been a genre that produces a lot of garbage and has a tendency to devour itself through cliches and rip-offs – that was true even in the 1970s and early ’80s, which most horror fans would acknowledge was something of a renaissance for the genre. There have always been a *lot* of bad horror movies; it’s kind of by its nature a genre that lends itself to being bad.

    But you need quantity in order to get some quality, and the last ten years or so have seen a huge number of horror releases. Quite a few of them have been good; some have even been excellent; and several have had a sizeable impact on popular culture. In addition to The Babadook, I’d count titles like The Descent, It Follows, 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead, The Crazies, Trick r’ Treat, The Conjuring, Let the Right One In, Paranormal Activity… and Shaun of the Dead if you count horror-comedy… among others. (We should probably also give a nod to TV, where The Walking Dead has been huge.)

    Compare that list to notable horror films of the late 1980s (when the genre started to go downhill in a hurry) or especially the 1990s (when it largely died out). Scream and The Blair Witch Project had the biggest impact toward the end of the ’90s, but it’s difficult even to think of horror titles from the decade that were both solidly horror – and not marketed as much more palatable “thrillers” like The Sixth Sense (vastly overrated in my opinion) – and that were not direct-to-video releases.

    So, in essence, I’m not saying this is the greatest time ever for horror films. But it’s almost certainly the best time since at least the mid-’80s, and since that’s about 30 years ago, I think we should give credit where credit’s due. Just my 2 cents. 😉

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  7. I see the ending as very different.

    Remember when she visualized the scene of the mother who killed her son on his 7th birthday and the cops and reporters are there, and the cops had to shoot the mom? It was her in the window of the place this happened.

    I think she out the monster “away” so she did not kill him until his 7th birthday, and her husband died on his birthday, so she is going the son to him as a present. She
    kill the son that day. I think the evil side won.

    I watched it a second time, and now am convinced of it. That single scene is the lynch pin for the ending–otherwise, why have it at all?

    Reply

  8. Posted by Ashley on October 22, 2015 at 8:23 pm

    Interesting comment, Theodore. I didn’t think of it that way. I thought of it more as another projection of what COULD happen IF she didn’t deal with her grief. Just like the book predicted that she would kill the son and herself, but instead she deals with it and avoids that ending.

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  9. Posted by Jackie on January 18, 2016 at 11:10 pm

    There was something about the ending though, that felt as fake and other worldly as all the other hypothetical endings, especially the white bird under the platter. It was almost too ethereal, like the ending of Blue Velvet. What actually happened in the end, or if that’s something we’re supposed to be able to figure out, I don’t know, but the whole thing felt a little too sweet to be quite right and the boy’s “things aren’t always as they seem” right before he reveals the bird seems to back that up.

    Reply

  10. Posted by Devin on February 25, 2016 at 2:51 am

    Excellent analysis. Very well put. Thanks for posting

    Reply

  11. Posted by Adrian on April 11, 2016 at 9:51 pm

    I didnt like the ending maybe because I am a psychiatric nurse but I read the movie primarily focused on mental illness, untreated, and others attitudes towards it.The movies strongest segment was when she becomes floridly psychotic suffering from visual hallucinations and the threat you feel towards the son due to her behaviour in the house.
    The reason I didnt like the ending was i felt it was obvious she killed her son and probably herself .Not to show this was abit of a cop out but of course these type of ambiguous endings can help sharpen debate and

    Reply

  12. Posted by Blake Willard on August 9, 2016 at 8:37 am

    Here is the one thing all these ending theories have yet to bring up and its what I think the ending is.

    The mother stabbed the son killing him and is living in a crazy hospital. Reasons I say this is yes this all has to do with greif and coping but the part that convinced me was when she was watching the tv and it talked about the mother that stabbed her son and then showed the mother in the window. This was her watching a report in the hospital where reporters managed to film her. You have the drug aspect from medications the doctors give her. The rape victim aspect from the vibrator scene. She can be seen in her daily life while she is doing the bingo but she tells herself she works there not that she is a patient. The community workers are actually doctors. They got uneasy when the kid talked about a broken nose because she has split personalities. The list goes on. Think of the movie suckerpunch.

    Reply

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