Amelia is having a nightmare, and first time director Jennifer Kent begins her psychological horror film, The Babadook, by placing the viewer in the middle of it. The film’s first shot is a close-up of Amelia breathing in a distressed rhythm, as if in labor. A few seconds later, a shrill scream accompanies breaking glass as shards scrape against the side of her face. Suddenly, with the camera shot still zoomed on Amelia’s frightened expression, it’s as if she is—we are— in a car that has gone out of control. The sense of being in a mid-air rotation is overlaid with brooding sounds of slow-motion machinery and yelling, mixed together like a slow-motion, nightmare rollercoaster.
There’s also a boy’s voice repeatedly calling for “Mom,” as if to get her attention. The car that she’s presumably riding in comes to a stop, Amelia looks to her right, and, for the first time, we look away from her distressed gaze to see what she sees: A man, perhaps a loved one, who looks like he’s breathing his last. Amelia finally awakes from her nightmare. The boy who’s been yelling for Mom—her son, Sam—is beside her bed. And so with Amelia we too are brought back to reality, but not before the film has aroused our distress by inviting us to inhabit Amelia’s.
It is still the middle of the night and Sam’s had a bad dream again, too. A few quick shots show Amelia checking around for anything that might be creeping in her son’s room. There’s nothing to see at this point, except when these shots transition to a close-up of the big bad wolf that is illustrated in Sam’s book. Together, the sequence suggests that the monster is in fact in his room, as if the subject of his haunted imagination is no less real because it is imagined.
Amelia reads him a bedtime story, or hoping to assuage his fears, she reads the part where the big bad wolf comes to an end. The final shot before the title screen lets us know that though Kent is a first time filmmaker, she has a knack for effective composition: An overhead view of mother and son on complete opposite edges of the bed, separated. In one shot, we know early on that The Babadook is, in part, about the strained relationship between a mother and a son. We’re set up to wonder at the source of the strain. Though Amelia is now awake, the nightmare continues. We soon learn why.
Amelia’s bad dream is symptomatic of having lived through a nightmare scenario. On the day that Sam was born, Amelia’s husband died while taking her to the hospital. Nearly seven years later, the tragic scenario has rendered Amelia’s and Sam’s family situation akin to a bare tree in the dead of winter—a significant image that recurs during the film. Their lives together have only withered.
The film’s first half focuses on Sam’s unstable behavior. Haunted by his own bad dreams, he never sleeps through the night. He’s fixated on protecting his fractured family against lurking monsters, even concocting weapons to ensure so. Like his mother’s nightmare suggests of her, Sam’s obsessive declaration that he’ll “smash the monster’s head in” suggests that he’s troubled by the loss that he’s been born into. School authorities and other parents are concerned for the wellbeing of their children when Sam’s around. He terrorizes others whose imaginations have been untouched by horror to the extent that his has.
The debilitating effects of Amelia’s and Sam’s loss worsen on the night that Sam asks his mom to read from a strange pop-up book titled “Mister Babadook.” The titular character is a monster that terrifies people who become cognizant of its existence. Sam immediately takes the threat seriously as if he can see that danger is imminent, but Amelia’s initial reaction is to deny The Babadook’s existence and instead to associate the strange happenings with her son.
In a film that at its halfway point makes a significant transition in focus from troubled son to troubled mother, the storybook mythology and their respective reactions to it are important for discerning the seamless narrative that Kent is able to maintain even while oscillating between perspectives of the consequences. In the first act of the film, we are, on the whole, seeing things from Amelia’s perspective. As such, we might be missing something—perhaps unable to perceive a threat that Sam sees.
Soon, Amelia can no longer deny that the not-so-kid-friendly book contains a horror story whose mythology has come to life in their barren home. And it’s no longer a question of whether or not it’s true, but of how it got in.
The Babadook has as few jump-scares as there are pages in a typical pop-up book. Instead, Kent derives horror from the constant presence of Amelia’s distressed demeanor, which evolves into something truly distressing to the viewer. The effect of Kent’s craft, too, is to distill some of the consequences of dealing with loss—numbness, resentment, agitation, and more—in the formal design of the film.
What makes Kent’s debut effort so impressive is how deftly she handles editing, sound, and image composition. From shot to shot and scene to scene there is hardly a wasted moment. In the very least, this makes for an efficient film that communicates more with less. But the effect of the tight editing also characterizes Amelia’s inability to focus on anything but the object of her grief. As such, her perspective is efficiently withdrawn until awakened by little shocks from the outside. You might say that The Babadook’s form functions to encourage the grieving to climb out of the withdrawn form of coping. It fits with the genre, too: Moviegoers summon courage to withstand a horror flick, to be shocked out of themselves in some sense.
Kent also employs an effective sound design to convey Amelia’s traumatized perspective. Sam’s persistent calls for mom, for instance, are either on the periphery of our attention—just distant enough to be ignored—or like incessant ringing in our ears that we can’t relieve. To amplify the frightening effect of this pattern of editing and sound, Kent relies on image composition that is often compressed. Like the beginning of the film, we are often up close on Amelia’s face, whether seeing her default, distressed look or seeing her reactions when alerted to something from the outside. Because of these compressed shots, our view is often limited like Amelia’s, and in such a way that grants insight both into the effect of her loss and how she’s responding to it.
Film theorist and historian David Bordwell has said that horror films generally function to suggest the limits of human knowledge. A monster of some kind invades and attacks that which is “natural,” or normal human existence. The orderliness of what we thought we knew is thrown into chaos. Kent, though, is interested in the monster which attacks in the traumatic aftermath of the death of a loved one—or, after order has already been disrupted. The Babadook still suggests the limits of human knowledge in that The Babadook—the supernatural creature—indeed exists in the film’s world. Yes, there’s still the obligatory scene in which the police officers greet Amelia’s report of troubling happenings with skeptical glances. However, it’s more interested in the limits of humanity’s capacity to withstand the effects of a traumatic loss, and so the police department scene instead plays to the deep sense that the grieving can have of others’ inability to help them.
Framed this way, grief is an existential signal that death is in some inescapable sense, despite the evidence, unnatural. Though death has happened and will happen to all of us, it’s still as if it ought not to. When pressed beyond the boundaries of life as many of us are lulled into expecting it—unaltered, ongoing—we quickly get stressed beyond what we can bear, and we sometimes become something alien to both ourselves and those around us, including remaining loved ones. The threat of loss can certainly grip us with fear and anguish, but what of the fear and anguish in the aftermath of loss—when all illusions are gone and all monsters manifest? If there’s not life—hope of its recovery—beyond loss, monstrosity is a threat to spread from one generation to the next.
Armond White comments that Stillman’s singular interest in character “reveals each one’s moral quest. The effort to behave decently, even by the most eccentric (self-serving) standards, gives Stillman’s upperclass stories a surprising kick and a fine grain.” It is marvelous to see these moral quests extend beyond the confines of a single movie, as a handful of familiar characters in fascinating variations are stripped of superficial childhood securities to make their slow, stumbling journeys toward grace.