Consider it the scariest kind of buzzer-beater. With little over a month left in 2014, the year’s best horror film opens this weekend. It’s called The Babadook, it’s straight out of Australia, and it’ll turn your drawers into sponges.
An original creation from the mind of Aussie writer-director Jennifer Kent, the shadowy, demonic Mister Babadook is the title character from a children’s book that pops up on 6-year-old Samuel’s (Noah Wiseman) shelf one night. The gist of the book is that when a child is asleep at night, the scary-as-fuck apparition—dressed like Jack the Ripper and sporting a mug that brings to mind an undead, vampiric mime—will signal its arrival with "a rumbling sound and three sharp knocks," float above the kid’s bed, and make this seem like child's play.
Beyond the page, the Babadook has other plans for Sam's mom, Amelia (Essie Davis), a single mother who, six years later, is still mourning her husband’s death via car accident. The wreck happened while they were en route to the hospital for Sam's birth. Preying on her vulnerability, Mister Babadook eventually revises its narrative and illustrations to show what Amelia could do to Samuel and their little dog if the Babadook were to inhabit her mentally exhausted and physically overwhelmed body and soul. Which, of course, happens, and the resulting violence is pure nightmare fuel. It turns The Babadook into the motherly version of The Shining’s “Here’s Johnny!” final act.
If The Babadook was merely terrifying, it’d still be one of the better horror films in recent memory. But its greatness is deeper than scariness. Excellently acted by Davis and young Wiseman, Kent’s film works even better as a domestic drama, showing how a mother’s grief can disable her from nurturing a son who’s a budding social outcast. Like so many of the best horror films, The Babadook pulls its creepiness from a real place—in this case, the difficulties of motherhood. Any parent who has ever privately, and shamefully, wondered what it’d be like to permanently silence their disobedient child will experience heightened trauma from what Kent has achieved here. And everyone else will just lose sleep. A win-win.
Here, Jennifer Kent discusses the inspirations and motivations behind the most critically acclaimed horror movie in years.
I recently watched your original short film, Monster, which is basically a 10-minute trial run for The Babadook. What struck me the most about Monster is that it’s more of a straightforward, for lack of a better term, “monster movie,” with the focus staying on the monster itself and the characters’ responses to it, whereas in The Babadook the monster is less prominent. What was your rationale behind that?
Well, the short is just a sketch idea about facing something that you're trying to suppress. But with the feature, I didn't want that "something" to take any focus away from the characters.
For the monster's look in the feature, I wanted two layers to it. The top layer is the hat, the coat, and the mask, and it’s much scarier to play up the story’s human aspects more. I really didn’t want to see that much of the monster in the feature, other than what’s in the book and a few flashes of this thing in the house. When it takes off that top layer, though, and we see that it’s something much more adult, I didn’t want to see that much of it at all.
It’s hard to create “nothing.” [Laughs.] It’s hard to create something that’s in the shadows, especially with what little we do see. You get this suggestion of the thing, but I never wanted us to fully see it.
Which connects to the idea that The Babadook is a horror movie, but it’s first and foremost about Amelia and Sam.
Yeah, and I understand that The Babadook is being sold as a horror film. Films need to be sold throughout the world, and they need to reach an appropriate audience, but, for me, I never approached this as a straight horror film. I always was drawn to the idea of grief, and the suppression of that grief, and the question of, how would that affect a person? I like stories that are heightened and have a mythical quality, which is why I didn’t just keep it in the psychological realm—it skips over into this other realm of supernatural mythology. But at the core of it, it’s about the mother and child, and their relationship.
Did you initially start writing the story with those mythical, supernatural elements in mind, or did they come about as you started working on the mother/son story and realized that the supernatural could fit in nicely?
They happened very much one on top of the other, and very close together. I realized that, if someone goes through a terrible grief and they can’t face it, it is horror. To not be able to face something that’s happened in your life must be a traumatic experience, and something that no human should have to go through, but we do go through those experiences.
I wanted to capture that feeling, and horror just seemed like the right realm for it. To put it into a straight drama would have, for me, turned it into a kitchen-sink drama, a melodramatic story about a mother not being able to love her child and wanting to harm her child. It just felt right as horror. Once I started with the idea, I never really questioned that approach—I just stuck with that feeling and tried to explore it as deeply as possible.
One great scene is when Amelia is reading the Mister Babadook book and it’s turned into a scary, graphic depiction of what she’ll do to her son. That was a ballsy move—you’re laying all the cards out on the table and letting the audience know what potential horror could come. It takes the element of surprise away, which reinforces the idea that the horror is secondary.
The horror always had to be subservient to the idea, which was the suppression of dark, painful feelings. When I was developing the script, or even while shooting, if it didn’t ring true, we wouldn’t do it. So, yeah, there are horror tropes in there, but they’re always in service to the deeper thing.
It’s funny when I hear people say, “I was so scared!” It’s lovely to get that feedback, but what really moves me is a different kind of reaction. I’ve had a number of people come up to me after screenings who were really moved. One woman had a schizophrenic mother, and she said the film was so important to her; another young guy had lost both of his parents when he was 21, and he felt like the film was a really honest portrayal of the pain caused by grief. Those kinds of comments are the reason why I made the film.
People too often dismiss horror, and they dismiss the power of a scary film. I think it’s a mistake to do that. Horror has the potential to be really profound and to tackle taboo subjects, and that’s why I love the genre so much.
I’m a big horror guy, so I read all the various reviews of every kind of horror movie, and, you’re right, it’s often dismissed, insulted, or flat-out misunderstood by a lot of critics. What’s been interesting about The Babadook, though, is that those usually dismissive critics love it. It’s bridging a gap between die-hard horror fans and the genre’s frequent haters.
I feel really happy for that. You love horror, so you understand how great it can be. It can be shitty, too, sure, but there are endless shitty dramas, yet we don’t annihilate the drama genre because of that. I’m happy that my film has traversed that gap between horror and non-horror. It’s exciting. Hopefully more critics will see The Babadook and start giving horror a chance again, because there are so many great and even deeper horror films coming out these days. It’s a great time for the genre.
One key element to The Babadook is the character of Sam. That kind of character can run the risk of being overly grating and insufferable, especially when we first see him and he’s wigging out. You think, oh, great, here’s another movie kid I won’t be able to tolerate for 90 minutes.
[Laughs.] Yeah, to where you want the mother to kill him.
Exactly, but in how you’ve written Sam and how Noah plays him, whenever he does something grating, he immediately wins you over by saying something as simple as, “I love you, mommy.” There’s always that duality with him.
I’ve said before that trying to direct any 6-year-old is like trying to get an incredibly drunk person to perform in a straight line. [Laughs.] It’s not an easy task. It was very hard, I won’t lie about that, especially compared to Essie [Davis], who’s a trained actor with 20 years of experience. But it was also an absolute joy.
You’re right, that role had to be finely calibrated. The whole film, to me, needed to be through Amelia’s eyes, so we had to feel what she was feeling, which was this push-pull of, “I hate this kid,” and, “But I also love him.” That’s her point-of-view. And we also needed to feel like he was out of control and that this whole monster thing is some just pathological thing, but then when it turns darker, you say to yourself, “Oh, shit—that kid is telling the truth!” I was always aware of the balance of irritation and empathy for Sam.
The thing about Noah is that he’s a very lovable little kid. We auditioned quite a few kids who were very good but I think they would have erred on the side of being really super annoying. A lot of that empathy is due to Noah—he’s a strong actor.
There’s a strong shift near the end of the film, when Amelia loses it and it becomes a siege inside the house, where we start to sympathize with Sam. The POV switches over to him and how dangerous the situation has become for him. Was it difficult to navigate that shift?
That’s a really good question, and I think it’s nice that you picked up on how challenging that was, because it was very challenging. The toughest part was writing the script and finding the right way to execute that shift. I was very aware, as a writer, that I was going to flip this about halfway through. I knew I needed empathy for Amelia, but I also needed some empathy for Sam as well. That was all very thoroughly discussed in the script’s development stage, so when I got to each scene I felt I knew exactly what I wanted the audience to feel for each character. It’s a “feeling” film, dependent on how the audience feels in every moment, so I had to be in command of those feelings at every turn.
In regards to the book and Mister Babadook, how much fun was it to dream up the mythology? It feels like it could be a real children’s book, but there’s also a malevolence to it that children’s books don’t actually have.
Sometimes Alex [Juhasz], our wonderful illustrator, would draw things and I would look at it and say, “Um, you couldn’t put that in a kids book.” [Laughs.] Again, it was a fine line. It had to be something that could believably turn up on a shelf. As the film progresses, of course, the book becomes more savage, but initially, yeah, it needed to be believable.
Even with the name, “Babadook,” some people have said that it’s stupid or it sounds silly—well, I’m happy with that response. It is silly. I wanted it to be like something a child could make up, like “jabberwocky” or some other nonsensical name. I wanted to create a new myth that was just solely of this film and didn’t exist anywhere else. The book started to fall into place once I chose the name—then the rhyming started and it found itself, in a sense.
The actual elements of Mister Babadook are just things that irk or scare me in real life, and also things I love, like silent cinema and silent horror. All of those elements are included out of taste, really.
Its look, like you said, harkens back to older reference points and old horror, but those familiar elements are countered by these unfamiliar attributes, like how the sounds it makes are completely alien, and it moves like an insect.
Well, I’ve watched horror films ever since I was a kid, back when I was really way too young to be doing so. [Laughs.] I have such a love and respect for the genre, so I guess that’s in my DNA. When I was creating this creature, I always went back to what I loved and what felt right. It was never, “Let’s do what hasn’t been done before,” or, “Let’s make something really scary”—it always went back to my instincts.
I’m glad you brought up silent cinema. One of the things Mister Babadook’s look reminds me the most of, particularly in the face, is Conrad Veidt’s The Man Who Laughs.
Yeah, definitely, and that’s a stunning film and a beautiful novel. Another one is the Lon Chaney film London After Midnight. I see that image, which made a really big impression on me as a kid, and I can’t get it out of my head. Lon Chaney has his normal face and teeth but the face is pulled back wide, and he has this evil smile. I also watched a lot of George Méliès before shooting The Babadook. I love the rough, naive quality of those in-camera effects, and that’s what I wanted for The Babadook.
Some people have commented on the effects not being super-polished, but that really was intentional on my part, to make them like that. The world of the film is a kind of pop-up book, if you like—it extends from the book Amelia and Sam read together.
I also love the placement of Black Sabbath’s “A Drop of Water” segment, which Amelia watches on TV at one point. That segment remains one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen.
Oh, yeah—I paid for the rights to use that scene myself. [Laughs.] I paid an arm and a leg for that footage. My producers said, “Why do you need this particular piece?” And I said, “Because I do!” It needed to be there.
The parallel between the woman in “A Drop of Water” losing her mind works nicely alongside Amelia’s in your film.
Yeah, it was, again, a feeling. When I think about it, everything about that old woman in “A Drop of Water” encompasses what I want people to feel from Mister Babadook, and it also felt like there was a mirror between that film and my film. It just made sense that she would be watching that on the TV. It’s like it’s commanding her to do her evil work. [Laughs.]
Another moment that uses Amelia’s television set really well is when she’s watching the news report about a mother who’s murdered her children and she sees herself in the window. How important was it for you to make sure the horror remained all-the-way and didn’t skimp back because there’s a child involved?
I didn’t want to pull away from this very big taboo of parents wanting to kill their children. That’s another reason why I chose the horror realm, because you can go to those places in this genre, whereas you can’t always go that far in drama. I honestly thought I would get a lot of flack from women and mothers, but what has surprised me is how relieved they are, actually, to see a character who’s real. I’m not saying, “Let’s go and contemplate killing our kids,” but it puts a real complex human being up on the screen. I’m glad that women feel it’s a good representation.
I remember when I was writing The Babadook, there was a case in Australia where a man was stuck in traffic on a very high bridge with his 5-year-old daughter; he got out of the car, grabbed his daughter, and threw her off of this high bridge, and she died. Obviously it’s a horrific story, but something in me felt for that man. What pushed him to that point? Because he’s human, just like you or me. What made him a monster in that moment? That’s what I wanted to explore and discover with The Babadook.
The Babadook is in theaters, on digital VOD, today, via IFC Midnight. You absolutely must see it. Go. Now.