Movie review: “The Babadook”

My sister recommended this Australian movie to me, and she is not one to put up with any nonsense or cheesiness in her movies. And indeed, while it did rely a little much on some cliched horror tropes, it was unusual in that the psychological tension was actually not being generated by the strange dark force bubbling up through the house, but by the extreme claustrophobia of a mother alone in a room with her child. Because while viewers might not all have a creepy shrine to our dead husbands in the basement, or a strange and disturbing Victorian children’s book on our shelves, or a house that is trying to murder us, a LOT of people–particularly a lot of women–have had the experience of being The Only Grownup In The Room. Enter feminism, stage right.

So much of this movie takes place in small confined spaces–a bedroom, a moving car–with a screaming child throwing a fit or a tantrum. No one else is ever in frame–just Amelia, the meek suburban nurse and mother, and her apoplectic son. These spaces, the film seems to be saying, are the loneliest places on earth. There is nowhere to get away, no escape from the sound or the oppressive wave of emotion you can’t tame or soothe, nothing but your own responsibility, crammed up against you, red-faced and raging.

And yet this movie isn’t anti-motherhood, or anti-child, at all. What it is anti-, is anti-isolation. It’s against a society that offers no slack but plenty of criticism to parents, and mothers most pointedly. It’s an illustration of how badly things go wrong when single mothers are expected to endlessly, perfectly be The Only Grownup In The Room, with horrendous social consequences for failure and zero social support. It does so through the very simple and classic horror setup of the haunted house. To wit: Outside the house, there are bosses who want to fire you for missing work, teachers who want your child isolated from others, a sister who will not allow your child to play with hers, Child Protective Services who want to interview your child to see why you have removed him from school for a week. Inside the house, Amelia is terrified. The walls were closing in on her long before a scary monster started banging doors and sliding out from the shadows. You could literally remove all traces of the top-hatted and grinning Babadook–it looks like an Edward Gorey illustration sprung to life–and this would still be the scariest movie I’d seen all year.

Because the calls are coming from inside the house.

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