Six years after the untimely death of her husband, Amelia (Essie Davis) walks through The Babadook in a haze of suppressed agony and stress. She’s falling out of touch with her eccentric 6-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who is having nightmares of his own. And when a mysterious pop-up book featuring a child-snatching bogeyman comes their way, it triggers a fear in Samuel that portends something even worse.
Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook is a fascinating blend of intense family psychodrama and bite-your-fingernails-off spook-show. Through the use of basic special effects and evocatively bleak production design, Kent conjures a world that is equally realistic and nightmarish. Essie Davis gives a tragic and horrifying performance as Amelia, a woman perilously under the influence, her grip on reality slipping with every waking second. Her struggle is a terrifying display of how the monsters under the bed never go away. They only grow stronger with age.
Just before her film’s New Directors / New Films debut, FILM COMMENT caught up with the Australian filmmaker to discuss the creation of new worlds, her influences from the silent era, and the fraught role of gender in horror.
The whole concept of the bogeyman, at least in American culture, is that he’s never a certain type or shape, and it’s very subjective. Here he takes the form of the Babadook. When did you and the Babadook first become acquainted?
[Laughs] Probably in my childhood. I wanted him to be very amorphous, like you said, something very personal and in the mind of each person. The Babadook started as a feeling more than a physical reality, and in the film the most you see of him is in the book. That was a very deliberate attempt to keep it unclaimed. The entry point of the Babadook is through the child’s imagination.
Did the concept of the book within the film, Mister Babadook, exist before writing the movie, or did it manifest itself as the writing went along?
It was always going to be a film. I made a short called Monster , and that energy led to the form of The Babadook, but I needed more in terms of storytelling power. I thought the book would be the best way to introduce the idea to the film that I wanted to put across. We’ve actually gotten lots of requests to publish the book! We had a wonderful American illustrator, Alexandra Juhasz, who we brought over to Australia, because I wanted somebody who understood that the book had to be handmade and have it all in-camera.
I see Edward Gorey in it, and a lot of Lon Chaney as Mr. Hyde in there as well.
Totally. Chaney was the only deliberate reference that I can think of. That ghastly face... That film is sort of lost to us, but we still have the stills of that wild and crazy face. I’m very happy with it.
There are a lot of references to old films, especially to Georges Méliès. He was a magician, and magic is a huge part of the film. He’s referenced many times, and the effects themselves are very simple illusions.
I’m a big lover of Méliès, and what he did for early cinema was incredible. I think that over the years we’ve lost that simple in-camera connection. I really wanted everything to be in front of the camera with very little post-production work done on it. I wanted to give the film a different feeling without resorting quickly to CGI. The energy of his films is very childlike and simple, yet a lot of his stuff is quite sinister by default, so that was very inspiring for The Babadook.
In many horror movies now, you see a lot of docudrama-style camera work. You chose a more still, yet very fluid, style.
I could never see this world in a contemporary way. To have a lot of loose movement simply didn’t suit me, nor did it match the psychological energy of that character. I’ve created a world in which there isn’t a resemblance to a lot of horror at the moment, which is good.
It’s refreshing. You wear your influences proudly, and that’s something a lot of filmmakers can be self-conscious about.
It can be a challenge to be inspired, and to let those inspirations show while owning the film. I felt very confident with the story, and I knew how I wanted to tell the story visually. It’s certainly an interpretation of those influences. I had a wonderful Polish director of photography, Radoslaw Ladcsuk, and we found our own language together. We created something unique to that world.
The whole parent-child relationship occupies a large chapter in the history of horror, and it’s central to The Babadook. What attracted you to that connection?
There is something monumentally troublesome with a mother who cannot or won’t love her child—it’s almost a taboo subject. And part of what makes horror special is that it deals with taboos very well. Horror pushes us up against the boundaries of what is acceptable and unacceptable. I don’t know how it works for other people, but I feel very strongly that people need to face all parts of their lives as much as they can. The Babadook is about somebody who can’t or won’t, or the result is that it doesn’t just knock her for a loop, but it potentially destroys the lives of people around her, and that just so happens to include her son.
You have a good handle on making the drama between Amelia and everyone she comes across as intense as the scares.
I was never really focused on scares, strange as that sounds. I was so focused on the story, first and foremost, as well the horror of what it is to go crazy. For me, the biggest scares come from underneath, with our discomfort with the situation, and how we’re unsure of how to feel with the things we come across in life. I didn’t want to focus on “Oh, I want something to jump out of the closet! That would scare people!” It may be an assault on the central nervous system for five seconds, but to sustain something that’s truly terrifying, you need to have a really strong story. Not that I’m averse to that h-word, “horror,” but it’s nice to have it be something more as well. I think that’s what made Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby so creepy as well, and why it’s sustained over time.
Would you say you identify more with Samuel or with Amelia?
I probably was a lot like Samuel as a kid. I was always inventing things. I used to take bikes apart and make go-carts and cause my mother a lot of anxiety. The main difference is I had a very loving mom, and a mom who I could love. I certainly didn’t suffer the turmoil that Samuel does. There are definitely some elements of me in Amelia as well. As a writer, you do inject your own experiences, not that I know the feeling of going psychotic. [Laughs] But I certainly relate to all the characters.
Your identification with a young male character really speaks to The Babadook’s themes of gender.
With Amelia, a lot of her problems stem from this “female” thing of saying: “Oh, I’m fine. I don’t need help. Everything is fine.” Suppressing all the darkness. Amelia, on the inside, is definitely crying for help. Men do that, too, but women do that in a different way. Horror can address that dark side of being female more so than other genres.
She wears pink, which is the stereotypical female color, but it does have a way of suppressing the darkness.
Her whole identity is built around caring. She’s a nurse, and she’s very altruistic, at an expense to herself. I think that’s why, at the end of the film, there’s such an explosion of the “Other.” She’s been hanging on for dear life to be this “good girl” image, and it was only going to burst eventually, whether the violence was going to be taken out on herself or on others.
The blue within the house is also very striking.
A lot of my influences are black and white, and my producer was nervous when I suggested the idea of shooting in black and white. I went back and thought: “Let’s create a different world that has color, but is really reduced, and not through postproduction, but actually in the design.” I had a genius production designer, Alex Holmes. We talked about how I wanted few colors, just variations on cool blue and burgundy. We stuck with those two colors in varying shades, and then black and white. The world itself that was created has a feeling of coldness and claustrophobia, and I think it’s one of the few films to do that. I see a lot of grain in horror films, and a lot of treatment in postproduction. I wanted the colors clean. Let the whites be whites and so forth. We wanted to put across that this bleakness is what Amelia’s worldview has become. We could add contrast, we could add the light pink. I nearly gave the production designer a nervous breakdown, but we’re both very happy with how it came out.
Essie Davis gives such a powerful and truly exhaustive performance. I see both Jack and Wendy Torrance from The Shining all rolled into one.
She’s extraordinary, a very underrated performer. I used to be an actress, and I went to acting school with her, and I’m just amazed by her talent. She disappears into any work that she does. She’s someone who can really travel around, going from somebody who’s really suppressed and timid and a bit of a doormat into somebody who’s sort of monstrous. A lot of women are not prepared to be that ugly or threatening. She’s incredibly brave and I owe a lot of the film to her and her courage.