The horror films that really rattle us are the ones that speak to us on some very personal level. The Exorcist is scary because we fear the people we love changing into something we no longer recognize, either as a result of sickness or some unknown reason. The Descent terrifies me not because I'm afraid of cave monsters (they're not so bad) but because I'm horribly claustrophobic and Neil Marshall fucking knows it.
Jennifer Kent's debut film The Babadook upset me in ways that few horror films have been able to manage because it speaks to all of my doubt and insecurities as a parent. Raising kids is tough, even when your kids are the best (my kids are the best). You're more exhausted than you ever thought possible. You can't get a second to yourself. You can't reason with this person or get them to think or act the way you want. It can be incredibly frustrating, but only half as frustrating as the way that you end up punishing yourself for feeling frustrated in the first place. We live in a time when every blogger and member of a Facebook parent group is Instagramming and humblebragging about their amazing kids and the amazing adventures they have and the amazing recipe they cooked for their amazing kid's amazing second birthday party. No one seems willing to admit that there are days when it's really hard.
The Babadook admits it. Even better, it translates those insecurities and frustrations into the language of a horror film, and a really good one at that. It is to parenting what The Shining is to alcoholism.
One day, Samuel asks his mom to read a story from a book she's never seen before but is sitting on their shelf. It's a pop-up book called Mr. Babadook, which tells the story of a boogeyman who can't be ignored and will never go away once his existence is acknowledged. And just like that, Amelia begins to see things and hear things. Maybe Mr. Babadook isn't just a story after all.
Starry Eyes as one of the best of the year in a genre film or otherwise. Amelia is doing her best to get by but it's clearly not working for her or her son, and Davis shows us every crack, every forced smile that's covering all of her fear and pain and frustration. She's incredible. And, again, there is an Act Three misstep that Davis does her best to sell, but she's really at her best when she's quietly falling apart, or finally losing her shit and then trying to make it up with the most heartbreaking bowl of ice cream you'll ever see someone eat.
There is so much that's great about The Babadook that it pains me to see the movie stumble near the end, and yet even those mistakes can't erase what writer/director Jennifer Kent (making her first feature) is able to accomplish. The film has greatness in it; the few scenes in which it really cuts loose with the scary are strong enough for the movie to catch on with audiences that might otherwise dismiss based on the title, while the main metaphor -- the level on which The Babadook really works -- carries a weight that speaks to the indie crowd. Like many great horror films, Jennifer Kent uses the genre to explore deeper issues that feel uncomfortably honest and real. It's the kind of movie that made me admire how much it was upsetting me.
The Babadook is currently playing in limited release and is available on VOD and iTunes.