Parental descent: Jennifer Kent’s ‘The Babadook’ is a spooky tale of a mother in crisis
The real boogeyman in Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent's chilling psychological horror movie, The Babadook, isn't the titular creature—a nightmarish cross between Dr. Caligari's cabinet monster and a Queensland cockroach. No, the root of the movie's biggest scares lies in something much closer to home: parenthood. In depicting the tension-fraught relationship between the movie's main characters, emotionally troubled single mother Amelia (Essie Davis) and her behaviorally challenged six-year-old son Sam (Noah Wiseman), Kent taps into a deep, dark fear that every parent experiences at one time or another—that nagging sense that you're failing miserably at the job of raising a child. Worse still are those moments when you find yourself wondering whether you even like, let alone love, that child in the first place.
These are both unnerving feelings that most mothers and fathers are often reluctant to admit to, rarely discussing it in the privacy of their own homes and certainly never in mixed company. And Kent admits to being trepidatious about kicking that hornet's nest with The Babadook, in which Amelia's already tenuous grasp on reality unravels over the course of the movie, helped along both by the lingering grief over the death of her husband—who perished in a car accident while driving her to the hospital to give birth to Sam—as well as her son's own strange behavior, which has marked him as an outcast at school. Madness really starts to take hold when a pop-up children's book mysteriously appears on Sam's bedroom shelf, one that tells the tale of the Babadook, a monster who moves into troubled homes uninvited and lurks in dark corners, waiting for his moment to strike. It isn't long before Amelia comes to believe that this storybook character has taken up residence in the house and she directs all her anger and fear at the most convenient scapegoat: Sam.
For parents in the audience, watching a deteriorating Amelia berate her increasingly terrified son will likely prove scarier than the movie's more traditional "Boo!" moments that involve strange noises in the night or monsters shuffling out of the shadows. These are also the viewers who might take the first-time feature filmmaker to task for poking at such a raw nerve. "Before the movie was released, I was steeling myself to get a lot of criticism, from women in particular, about the portrayal of this deeply flawed mother," Kent says, on the phone from Australia. "But then I realized that all humans feel deeply flawed, and because of that maybe they could recognize themselves in this character and feel relief in seeing that depicted onscreen. I remember a writer friend of mine burst into tears after one scene, and she told me, 'Oh my God, all the times I've lost my temper or been impatient—that scene made me realize how big I look to my little kids.' That's the kind of thing I really wanted to address in the film."
Despite making a movie that's scarily attuned to parental fears, Kent doesn't have any kids of her own, though she says that she does enjoy the company of her gaggle of nieces and nephews. "I really love kids and connect with them. I also felt very loved as a kid myself—I have a very loving mom and dad. Still, it's very easy for me to imagine what it would be like to not have that and how horrific it would be. My experience [without children] has given me some ability to detach and see [parenthood] a little more objectively, maybe."
During the process of making The Babadook, Kent did seek input from parents she knew—including her leading lady, who is the mother of twin girls—but for the most part she relied on instinct in depicting Amelia's state of mind. "I did five drafts of the script, and by the time I got to the third draft, I decided to look up post-traumatic stress disorder and post-natal psychosis," she explains. "I read a few books on those subjects and what amazed and encouraged me was how similar the experiences of those women is to the progression of the Babadook for Amelia. They would hear footsteps, and then voices and then whatever it was they were witnessing took them over. And then I had a lot of honest friends around me who shared a lot about the difficulties of being a mother. So, collectively, all that stuff added up to what I feel is a pretty truthful portrayal of Amelia's strange form of motherhood."
The story of an unstable parent and her young kid trapped in a house bedeviled by paranormal activity can't help but bring to mind Stephen King's seminal horror classic, The Shining, which is also fundamentally a parable about parenthood. And, in fact, The Babadook's Amelia feels like a close relative of the version of Jack Torrance that King described on the page, as opposed to the boisterous psychopath Jack Nicholson wound up playing in Stanley Kubrick's tonally tweaked film adaptation, which the author himself famously dislikes. But Kent says that any similarities to The Shining have more to do with Kubrick than King, because she saw that movie—and made her own—long before reading the book. "I read lots of King as a kid, but I never got to The Shining," she admits. "I only read it this year and I was struck by how beautiful it is, as well as the similarities to my film. I must have been channeling it without reading it! I think the Kubrick film is a masterpiece, but I can understand why King felt disappointed in it, mainly because the book has so much more warmth and empathy towards the Torrance character and I really wanted that for The Babadook.
"I didn't want to portray Amelia as this crazy woman from the get-go," she continues. "Often, women who are crazy are demonized in films, because we look at them from the outside. I really wanted to experience what it was like to go down that slippery slope from the inside. I wanted to create a woman who was really just struggling, while also pointing out that this monster [exists] within everyone." To help her lead actress convincingly portray Amelia's descent into madness, Kent tried to shoot the film in sequence as much as possible and scheduled three weeks of pre-production rehearsal time so that Davis and her much younger co-star could have some practice becoming mother and son.
"Essie and I are great friends because we went to acting school together, so we started from a very strong base. I think she knew I would never make her look foolish. It's a bold performance, and I was looking out for her 100% of the time."
Taking a page from Kubrick—who shielded child actor Danny Lloyd from The Shining's more traumatic moments—Kent and Davis also looked out for then-seven-year-old Wiseman throughout production, ensuring that he wasn't on set for the scenes where Sam is on the receiving end of his mother's increased insanity. "We protected him every step of the way," Kent says. "During the reverse shots where Amelia was abusing Sam verbally, we had Essie yell at an adult stand-in on his knees. I didn't want to destroy a childhood to make this film—that wouldn't be fair. Before we started shooting, I told Noah a kiddie version of what the film was about. I said, 'Basically, Sam is trying to save his mother and it's a film about the power of love.' He's a really empathetic kid, so he understood the story and that it was all make-believe. On his last day, he leapt into my arms, gave me a big hug and wouldn't let go. And then he said, 'It's not really over, is it?'" (For obvious reasons, Wiseman hasn't seen the entire film, but his parents did allow him to watch the first 20 minutes at a private screening. His review? "After the screening he told me, 'I did a good job,'" Kent says, laughing.)
When it came to designing the visual language of the film, Kent drew on such formative influences as David Lynch and Roman Polanski, whose claustrophobic 1965 chiller Repulsion is a clear reference point for the way The Babadook depicts Amelia's once-welcoming home degenerating along with her state of mind. "Polanski is very good at stretching and compressing time according to motion and that's what I wanted to do here. The director of photography, Radek Ladczuk, and I decided to keep things quite formal in the beginning, very balanced and even. And as she degenerates, time becomes less clear and shots become less balanced. I always imagined the film would start like a gentle pair of hands around the viewer's neck that would get tighter and tighter until people felt they couldn't breathe."
The look of the movie's monster, meanwhile, emerged from the director's love for the silent creature features of the ’20s, like F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu along with other memories of childhood fears, like the cockroaches that used to dart about outside her family Queensland abode on a hot summer night. Kent collaborated with California-based illustrator Alexander Juhasz to translate her mixture of ideas into a single, potent image. "The Babadook is a mishmash of things that I love that went into making this strange entity. Alex is a terrific collaborator, so it was easy for me to give him my stick drawings and he would come back with something I was happy with reasonably quickly." Kent is also proud that, like the monster movies of old, The Babadook is an entirely practical affair from an effects standpoint. "There was some [digital] smoothing done in post, but all of the effects were done in camera. That just feels scarier to me. Even if you don't realize it, it does something to your brain to see something that was created in real time and occupies real space."
As a first-time writer-director making her film independently on a small budget, Kent had to navigate Australia's rapidly shrinking film industry to secure the funds necessary to make the movie and then get it seen. The experience made her realize how challenging the climate currently is for homegrown filmmakers who are eager to make movies in and about their native country. "We're fighting to retain our voice," she says. "We have a lot of talent that goes to America and I'm happy to do that as well, because I want to tell universal stories. But it's also really important that we make films here and it's not easy to make movies that don't travel outside of Australia. You can't really do that anymore."
On The Babadook, for example, Kent says that she was required to find an international sales agent in order to secure financing for the film, eventually partnering up with the globe-spanning conglomerate Entertainment One, or eOne. In January, the film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and the accolades it received resulted in banner sales, with distributors in France, the U.K. and America—where it was picked up by IFC—snapping it up. "Sundance was a boon to our film. We've sold to almost every major territory in the world now. It's a little film in terms of budget, but it's traveling really well." (Indeed, according to Kent, the movie has actually performed slightly better abroad than it has in Australia, where it received a limited theatrical release in May. The U.S. release is set for Nov. 28.)
Right now, Kent hopes that the career momentum she's enjoying from The Babadook will help her get another film into production sooner rather than later. She's already got two scripts ready to pitch, both of them Australian-set tales with international appeal. And, like The Babadook, they tell a dramatic story with a genre twist. "One of the scripts is about a character that spends most of the film in a coma and we experience her world through a coma dream," she says. "The other is a frontier story set in Tasmania in the 1820s that's about revenge and the futility of revenge. I'm also pursuing the idea of working in America, because you make great films over there. But I'm being very selective; I need to make sure that I feel strongly about the idea behind a film."
One thing you can definitely count on is that The Babadook won't become a franchise like Saw. "There will definitely not be a sequel to this film, but I can entertain ideas of where the characters go next for sure. Hopefully they arrive at a much more loving and grounded place. For me, The Babadook is a film about a woman waking up from a long, metaphorical sleep and finding that she has the power to protect herself and her son. I think we all have to face our own darkness, whatever that entails. Beyond genre and beyond being scary, that's the most important thing in the film—facing our shadow side."