Film Talk – The Babadook (2014)

When I put the word talk rather than review in the title, it’s usually because I’ll discuss a specific theme or character in more detail, rather than just a general review, which is definitely the case here.

I went into The Babadook expecting to be delivered a dose of pure terror the likes of which I hadn’t experienced in a very long time. After all, I had heard nothing but great things from people whose opinions I truly respect. I mean, if the critic Mark Kermode (his favourite film being The Exorcist, that’s film, not just horror film) and the director of The Exorcist (my favourite horror film of all time, and yes I know I say that every time I mention it) William Friedken are recommending a horror film as being truly scary, I think you can see why I sat down to watch it with such excitement.

I was surprised then to finish the film and my overwhelming feeling to be that I did not find it scary in the slightest. In saying that, just because I didn’t find it scary doesn’t mean I thought it was a bad film*. What it does mean is that I do not think it was quite up to the praise it has been positively dripping in since its release. I would say it was better than your average brainless horror film – and really it’s more psychological horror – but I can’t go any further than that.

Mental Health

You see, as the film was playing out, I very quickly saw the film for what it was**, a woman struggling to cope with a horrific past trauma that had seen her spiralling into worsening mental health. Certainly it is from this dark place that the spectre of The Babadook is born.

A quick mention about the actual book in the film just to say I agree with those who think Amelia herself wrote the book; I think there’s enough in the film to support that, but regardless, you can go ahead and check out all theories about the film, including the ending, elsewhere as I’m going to stick with my main area of interest in regards to this film and what I believe underpins the whole thing, and that is mental health.

I cannot and will not be scared of anyone who is suffering from a mental illness and simply needs care, attention, love, empathy, understanding, compassion, support. Please do not think I am projecting too much of myself and my own mental issues onto the material. From purely a character perspective, what Amelia has had to go through necessitates she receives – either willingly or via intervention – the support mentioned above, or else suffer from repression and denial, which can lead to things like psychosis and other horrendous issues; and really, it is all of these things playing out and coming to fruition that provides the backdrop of the film.

Interviews

When the film ended, I was intrigued to see what the director – Jennifer Kent – had said about her film in interviews. I found one she did for a website called The Dissolve, where she made statements which I believe support my views of the film, but at the same time expressed them in a way that I take exception to.

 The Dissolve: Over the course of the film, the role society needs Amelia to play—and how people discourage her from confronting her fears—becomes one of the greatest obstacles she has to face.

Kent: She’s drowning, she’s like a drowning woman. Other people aren’t helping her, but she’s not making it any easier, either. She’s kind of put herself in this scenario. And sure, her sister is hardly empathetic, but then Amelia doesn’t ask for direct help, and that’s frustrating for her sister. But I understand it. I mean, who goes through what Amelia had to go through? It’s a horror you don’t want to imagine.

The problem with her answer is that it is inconsistent with what she said earlier in the same interview –

The Dissolve: First, I’d like to talk about the genesis of the project. Your short film “Monster” made the festival rounds all the way back in 2005. What’s it like to hold onto an idea for that long and not completely defeat yourself or talk yourself out of it?

Kent: I’ve been working on a number of film scripts, and they were just too out-there. Screen Australia supported me up to a point, but they thought these scripts were too ambitious financially. So I realized I needed to look at an idea that was contained and more intimate, and this idea… The idea of facing your shadow-side is my myth, something I think is really important in life. You see people who are really messed-up by not facing stuff, and that’s what all addiction is about. People become alcoholics or drug addicts because they can’t face something inside.

Take special notice of “You see people who are really messed-up by not facing stuff”. Now this is a very true statement but clashes horribly with that bit in bold from the answer above – She’s kind of put herself in this scenario – which, you know, is wrong, she hardly put herself in that situation. In fact, there is no context where those words could justifiably be used. She lost her husband in a tragic accident. She had to face up to the death of the father of her child on the way to the delivery room! There is no time limit on how long that can take, especially when amongst all of the grief and feelings of despair and loss she also had/has to come to terms with the fact that she is a mother, which means in many ways her own feelings being probably somewhat ignored, denied, or else lost in the tumult of what is going, something that is touched upon here –

The Dissolve: That’s something compelling about the relationship between Amelia and Samuel, which seems rooted in this idea that people need to feel allowed to engage with their fears. Samuel has his little weapons, and he isn’t scared of The Babadook so much as he’s eager to kill it.

Kent: Well, he’s acting out all of this stuff, while Amelia is being a “very good girl” in the beginning. She’s had these terrible things happen and people are trying to help her out, but she’s like, “I’m fine, I’m fine. I’ll do something for you.” And that’s a typically altruistic feminine trait, and I think it has massive negative repercussions. You get the suppression, and then underneath the nice girl is this monster that’s waiting to explode. [Laughs.] Beware of the woman who’s too nice!

Again, this is a classic denial technique, one that can be used to shield yourself from the whole world, a kind of ‘please, don’t worry over me, stop forcing me to confront what is so fucking painful. I’m fine, see, I’ll do things for you, I’m coping, it’s good, I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.’

And why is it ‘a typically altruistic feminine trait’? I can tell you in the context of what we’re talking about here it is a human trait.

What I’d really like to draw attention to is the use of the word ‘society’ and go back to the question Over the course of the film, the role society needs Amelia to play—and how people discourage her from confronting her fears—becomes one of the greatest obstacles she has to face.

Yes, what of society? When it comes down to it isn’t this whole thing a damning indictment of how we as a global society (seeing as this is set in Australia) deal with mental health? Because that is what the Babadook is, a metaphor, a manifestation of the mental turmoil understandingly being experienced by a woman who unravels, lest we forget, due to a specific trigger, which is what her son’s birthday represents. Take heed of the scene where she is at the doctors and pleads for sleeping pills for her son. Notice how she says she isn’t coping, be aware of how no support is offered right there. Look at the phrasing of the question, ‘the role society needs Amelia to play’, which feeds back into my point her about own needs being buried because she has to be a mother and the way this can easily feed into a cycle of denial and repression.

Look at the words once more of the director about Amelia, again in what way can it be described that “She’s kind of put herself in this scenario”? or that ‘she’s not making it any easier, either’ as if it’s her fault. Come on!

Straight Horror Film

For the people that love this film as a straight horror film (my friend included), simply because of the Babadook itself, and talk about it as being ‘scary’ and getting all excited in that way people (myself included) do when you’ve really enjoyed a horror film, I have to ask, why are you scared? Seriously, why are you scared? Because it isn’t scary, it’s troubling, it’s tragic, it’s too real in the sense that in the year 2015, people still fall through the cracks every day and real tragedies happen because we don’t know how to deal with people that are mentally ill, other than to scapegoat or laugh or take part vicariously in their unravelling in a horror film and not even comprehend the underlying significance of what you are watching.

Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, colleagues, all over the world, every day, this very moment, are fighting their own version of the Babadook and pretending that things are OK because they can’t bear to talk, to confront, to reveal their unseen worlds that torture them every day. It might be scary for them, but it shouldn’t be for you, the public, the watchers. Again, I reiterate, I cannot and will not be scared of anyone who is suffering from a mental illness and simply needs care, attention, love, empathy, understanding, compassion, support.

Finally, again I have to ask, just why are you scared of The Babadook?

 

*For the record, very briefly, I think the film is shot well, acted well, in fact it’s all put together really well. IMDB has it as a 6.9/10. I think it’s a comfortable 7.     

**I appreciate that sentence might grate a bit, but I feel I do see the film for what it is, but again, there’s thousands of opinions out there, this is just mine.

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