Films aren't bad just because they're familiar and use overused cliches. Think about it, mate, and you'll see great art sometimes comes in colors so familiar you want to scream in overwrought ecstasy like a glue-high teenage time-traveling John Waters in post-Disney Times Square. Soap operas are often trite, cliche'd and overwrought but that doesn't mean we should dismiss Douglas Sirk; costume dramas are often barrenly obsequious but that doesn't mean we should dismiss Jane Campion; and monster under-the-bed suburban mythopoetic fairy tales are often insufferably whimsical and Danny Elfman-scored but we can't dismiss The Babadook. A quick Sheila can take the Gorey-Addams-Grimm signifiers overused by Tim Burton and go deep into their source, the nightmare parable fore, the zone where men (and boys like Burton) dare not go (it's too close to the, um... you know what). It has to be a resourceful and courageous Shelia to go there, but if she's brave and resourceful enough she can slither her scoop down past the popcorn saltless center for the black brass kernels at the bottom of the lowest ebb nightmare bucket. Mmmm-hmmm, good on ya, Sheila! Tim Burton can't even look you in the eye now.
Such a Sheila is the newest great lady Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent, and The Babadook (2014), out on DVD and Blu-ray this week, but crafts from that Gorey-Addams-Burton cloth a Shining-Repulsion (1) collapse of the consensual real. It's the story of a mom and her squirrelly son going totally bonkers--she half-crazy from lack of sleep and sexual frustration and he from prolonged anxiety about his missing father--and co-creating a poltergeist-ish manifestation of their collective unconscious energies, and if--with its magician's hat and bony fingers--the title monster can come off a little This Way the Wicked Kruger Comes Depp-ensian Dr. Caligari Cat in the Hat 'high on mercurochrome- whimsical, it still has more than enough genuine menace to make it closer to Kubrick than Disney... most of the time, anyway.
Like our daily dreads, the pop-up book Amelia (Essie Davis) finds on the doorstep starts out Gorey-normal but soon evolves into a genuine, disturbing murderous threat, with drawings of Amelia herself, possessed, stabbing her child to death, gone as crazy as James Mason at the climax of Nicholas Ray's Bigger than Life. (1956), making the book half-R.L. Stine, half legitimate death threat, with pull-tabs.
It works because at the core of this archetypal mysterious ghost intruder lurks a great hybrid archetype, and unassimilated animus for mom Amelia (Essie Davis), representing her dark id/shadow wish fulfillment (to be free of her difficult brat once and for all), and a grim devouring father figure for the boy, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). We all know this nightmare figure, so common to sleep paralysis, usually the opposite gender to us, they wait until we're almost asleep, or trying to spend a little me-time, if you know what I mean, then start thumping on doors or rattling chains, hammering away at our nerves as we try to repress your inner rage, until it breaks off and comes back in poltergeist form and your sense of reality shifts and the border between dreams and reality collapses.
And Kent gets it--probably better than any filmmaker yet--how gigantic adults seem in the eyes small apprehensive children. I had forgotten it myself, having not been a child in quite awhile, but Kent brings it all back, to ground zero of childhood nightmares, that sense of relative smallness. Even Kubrick never quite dared deal with that monstrously large parent element. The one time Jack Torrance seemed bigger than normal he was looming over a model of the maze and neither mom nor son could see him. But Kent shows how children see themselves as normal size and adults as (relative) giants. As her mood gets blacker, Amelia gradually seems to grow to ogre-size; our perspective changes and she's shot from low angles, and her anger at Samuel morphs her (sans CGI) into some dark evil thing.
When I was very young I used to have nightmares about my mom creeping into my room like a vampire to drink my blood. I can still remember how she moved, like she was simultaneously swimming in slow motion and moving too fast to run away from. When I was scared in the dead of night I'd run in to her room to wake her so she could stand guard while I went to the bathroom. This one time though, she sat up slowly and straight like a vampire rising from a coffin and moaned really low... and it was like my nightmare was coming true. I knelt in submission, buried my head in my hands and started crying and screaming, "I'm your son! I'm your son!!"
We joked about it for years, but at the time I knew true fear.
Is there anything worse a very young boy can imagine than his mom, his one true protector, turning evil on him? It's easy to forget you ever feared her once you get past the breakwaters of adolescence; the passage of mom from benevolent giantess to a sweet if nagging allowance-payer is a one-way street and we're glad to not have to look back. We modulate our perceptions so that we presume we've always seen from the same height, but a film like The Babadook can remind us, as good horror movies do, of all the terror we grew so hard to forget.
As I wrote about The Shining, cabin fever is a very hard thing to study, as just showing up to study it rapidly dissipates it. One is either killed like Scatman Crothers or sucked up into the madness, as with the semi-sympathetic father whose poor brain oscillates between giggling sadism and paternal sympathy for Marilyn Burns in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Those kind of characters are so rare in horror that when they show up we take notice. Like Frederic March becoming Mr. Hyde halfway through the terrorized Miriam Hopkins' plea for help, Amelia in The Babadook or Ray's ogres in Bigger than Life and In A Lonely Place exhume that fear our source of comfort will turn on us. Having very little (adult) experience reading children's books I can't be too scared of the Babadook book in theory. But I have relied on The Thing (1951) for most of my life to save me in times of trouble, and if I put it on during one of my regular dark nights of the soul and the film had changed, if Captain Hendry was now a sadist in league with Dr. Carrington, and tortured people or something, that yawning terror of my mom sitting up in bed and moaning like some beanstalk vampire giant in the dead of night would come roaring back. Films are great in that sense, they can be edited but they can't really change, especially on DVD.
But the Babadook terror rolls in both directions: The vulnerability and trust involved with familial love hinges on acceptance of uncanny extremes, for a mother must love even the most loathsome of creatures--the beast, the frog, the rat, the touched and wayward Richard--giving them, at the very least, a kiss, an embrace, a bottle and a place to sleep it off in, in order slowly grow them into a prince. If the mother can't provide this, the child snaps and begins to darken into something worse, trying to create for others the terror he feels as a result of his mom's ambivalence. And the mom, via the uncuttable psycho-umbilical root that connects them even past death, that root no machete or pill can sever, comes tumbling down the well after him, barking at him not to put her in the root cellar.
"I'll make you a bet, the more you deny, the bigger I get!"
All in all, it's pretty Freudian, especially when the pop-ups begin. And the score emphasizes and distorts Amelia's disintegrating mentality; in one great scene Amelia looks for her son and you hear his calling her, muffled and echoed in the mix, making it hard to pinpoint (we're never sure if it's just a hallucination). While the kid is being terrorized, she's downstairs and the cuts back and forth exhibit a profound grasp of the way the repressed emotions and sexual frustrations of a widowed parent can spontaneously generate autonomous external threats, as in Dr. Morphius' monster "from the Id" in Forbidden Planet or (single mom) Jessica Tandy's Birds.
All told, mythically-speaking, Kent and Babadook is what Jane Campion and The Piano used to be, a female furie and her bloody offspring masterpiece, up from down under, come to wade through chthonic swamps of menstrual blood and societal taboo, dragging her son, daughter, piano, canoe, and civilization and darkest shadow id behind her, surrendering to, and then conquering, her darkest shadows as she slouches towards us. In Kent we maybe have found a female Polanski-esque Nicholas Ray to shake the "Yellow Wallpaper" madness and horror back to its primal core, the childhood fear that one day you'll wake up and your parents will be gone, leaving only their demons, their madness, addictions and dysmorphia to babysit you through your slow genetic deflowering. You can't run. You can't hide. You can only endure and stand up, unafraid, unbowed, present your warrior stance, emit your battle cry, and let unflinching courage drain your demons down to shaking junkie shadows.
Unconditional love: no monster can survive it. And vice versa.
2) See: Age of Asherah: Rosemary's Baby, and: