By Ray Pride
Writers are told to kill their darlings, but, truly, they have to kill their masters. Murder them in their sleep.
Sometimes, often enough, I fret I’m too fixated on how authors and filmmakers are in thrall to their forebears, but the concern is always in the service of figuring out how they’ve burned through them. At the beginning and into the middle of the career of super-Swede Ingmar Bergman, critics would often pin the influence of Scandinavian dramatists like August Strindberg onto his work, but no one got it right until the writer, probably some Brit whose name I can’t recall, who said, you can see the influences, but no one else influenced by those playwrights had come anywhere near close to making an Ingmar Bergman movie. (Or being Ingmar fucking Bergman.)
It’s an enormous comparison to let fall onto a first-time feature writer-director, but the Australian Jennifer Kent’s furiously fantastic chamber chiller, “The Babadook,” is an idiosyncratic, detailed, whole-black-heartedly psychological horror that wears its influences on its sleeve yet returns darkly to life as something fresh. (And terrifying.) Influence? Take it in. Burn it down.
The first of “The Babadook”’s primal themes is the notion that to be a mother is the greatest gift, unless, of course, it’s also the greatest curse. Stressed-out mom Amelia (Essie Davis) copes resentfully with saucer-eyed, mad-haired, insomniac six-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), six years after the violent death of her husband. (Davis’ intensity is shocking in its own way, a slow, sure drip toward matching Jack Nicholson’s life-of-the-mind monster Jack Torrance in Kubrick’s “The Shining,” but Shelley Duvall’s Wendy as well.)
The second, harsher thread to emerge is Samuel’s trauma over his missing father. Samuel’s a handful even before he begins to dream about The Babadook, a top-hatted monster, post-Nosferatu figure that appears in a pop-up storybook (drawn by American illustrator Alex Juhasz) that will soon pop up in their lives. Their home is a black-and-white world, a meeting of the illustrative work of Tim Burton and Edward Gorey. Hallucinations, medication, chaos and intimations of epic dread ensue. Unabashedly embellishing genre shocks and terrific tension to unusually controlled and artful form, The Babadook—a word that sounds even creepier in Australian accents—draws from the finest of horror forbears. The film’s own publicity gleefully invokes Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Tenant,” as well as William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” (Friedkin is a loud fan of “The Babadook”), “The Omen” and “Let the Right One In.” The keen pop-up book-styled design, as well as judiciously used stop-motion, also suggests a keen affinity with Wes Anderson’s latest work.
To that you could add a soupcon of other precursors, including Georges Méliès, whose work is glimpsed repeatedly on a television screen, Bernard Rose’s little-seen gem about children’s creative imagination, “Paperhouse,” James Wan’s fixation on creepy puppets, and more importantly, burgeoning feats of portraying female hysteria, such as Emily Watson’s magnificent performance in “Breaking the Waves.”
Before its Sundance debut, Kent told the Hollywood Reporter that her career kicked off in style once she’d sent an “unbusinesslike email” to Lars von Trier after seeing “Dancer in the Dark.” He invited her to work on Dogville, where she saw “the whole process from start to finish. The thing I learned about Lars that I’ve carried with me since is how stubborn he was. He had a vision and even if it was idiosyncratic, he was strong. As a woman, that was something I really needed to take on board.” “We can’t get rid of the Babadook,” young Samuel says, and once you’ve seen it, you’ll know he’s right. “The Babadook,” for all its primal borrowing from other movies, is first and foremost a Jennifer Kent film, and it’s great. She’s burned her influences, and the result is indelible, and toxic and scalding and scarifying and terrific to the touch.
“The Babadook” opens Friday, December 19 at the Music Box.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.