It’s hopefully not controversial to suggest that horror hasn’t always been the most feminist of genres. Even by Hollywood standards, women in horror tend to get the short end of the stick. From damsels in distress to screaming torture victims to just plain old eye candy, female characters–and even female leads–haven’t exactly been flying the flag for equal representation. After all, in The Cabin in the Woods‘ satirical take on the genre staples, it was the women that ended up defined by their sex, destined to be either a virgin or a whore, and nothing in between. It’s refreshing then to watch The Babadook, a new entry in the genre that finds in its female lead a single mother who’s fully-realized, un-sexualized and isn’t waiting around for any man to save her.
If you haven’t heard of The Babadook, don’t blame yourself. This low-budget Australian horror film almost sank without a trace in its home market, showing on only 13 screens nationwide, despite critical acclaim and a Sundance premiere. After a successful run in Europe, now it’s heading for a limited release in the U.S. and this is one film that’s well worth the effort of tracking down.
Single mom Amelia (Essie Davis) is raising her troubled child Sam (Noah Wiseman) alone after her husband’s death several years earlier. Sam, like many kids, is obsessed with the idea that there are monsters lurking in the house, which is only exacerbated when he discovers a new pop-up book on his bookshelf, all about the titular Babadook. From there, Amelia and Sam’s already challenging life begins to slowly unravel as the Babadook makes its presence known. Amelia can’t seem to get rid of the book no matter how hard she tries, while the distinctive figure seems to crop up everywhere she looks.
Like much of the best of the supernatural horror genre, The Babadook never tires of playing with the question of just how much of this is real and how much exists entirely in Amelia’s head. The film’s ending suggests an answer in one direction, but there’s no certainty to be had here. Cast in one light, the film’s an effective tale of childhood monsters come to life, trying to tear a family apart. Look at it another way, and it’s a tragic account of a single parent unravelling, suffering a mental breakdown with no support network and a dependent son, all with the spectre of her dead husband lurking in the back of her mind.
The film is supported by two exceptional central performances. Essie Davis sells Amelia’s utter exasperation with her difficult son, and the challenging combination of love and frustration that drives their relationship. The real standout here is Wiseman though, in one of the strongest performances from a child actor this year. His Sam is so believably insufferable that you’ll sympathize with every moment of anger from his mother, even as you see how entirely innocent the boy is.
Screenwriter and director Jennifer Kent wisely avoids the easy route of the ‘evil child’ cliché, offering something more nuanced instead. While the film’s early sections offer echoes of The Innocents’ troubled children, it later becomes clear that this owes just as much of a debt to The Shining as the threat begins to shift in the pair’s dark, creaky old house.
Of course, a horror film is nothing without its monster, and the Babadook is one of the eeriest creations in years. From the first pages of the dark pop-up book your skin begins to crawl, and the creature’s appearance continues to be inspired by that hand-drawn style. The clear standout is the voicework, used to great effect in the film’s trailers. If you don’t spend the next few days after watching the film croaking “Baba…dook…dook…dook” at every opportunity, then I just don’t know what’s wrong with you.
The feminist pedigree is perhaps one of the most unique–and heartening–aspects of the film. This is Kent’s directorial debut and, rare as it is to see a debut feature this accomplished, it’s encouraging to see it come from a woman. The film world has a well known dearth of female creators, and horror as a genre remains male-dominated even by typical Hollywood standards. And this film couldn’t be much of a stronger statement of what we might have to look forward to from female creators: a female lead, a strong mother-son dynamic (explored much less often than the father-son relationship) and a refreshing lack of titillation. Horror and the erotic have been natural bedfellows for centuries, but there’s something to be said for a film that doesn’t feel the need to strip its female lead down to her underwear at the first chance it gets. Amelia has her own complex motives and character arc. She’s messy and exhausted, even before things ever get gory, and seems an utterly real single mom who’s been worn down by the world. Perhaps most importantly, at the end of it all the survival of herself and her son falls entirely on her head–there’s no one else to step in and save her.
That’s not to suggest that you should go see the film because it’s made by a woman, of course. You should go see The Babadook because it’s almost certainly the best horror film of the year; because it’s touching, thought-provoking and consistently well-executed; and because you haven’t seen anything quite like it in a long time.