The Horror. The Horror. Round 5: The Babadook

the babadook posterIt’s probably screamingly obvious that I’m into horror more for those movies that fall on the horrifically humorous end of the genre spectrum. Whether intentionally funny (Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, Zombeavers) or unintentionally so (Friday the 13th Part 3, Demons), I suppose I’m just looking for flicks that satiate a morbid sense of humor.

Occasionally, though, I delve into the darker side of horror, where we find today’s selection and darling of last year’s indie film circuit, The Babadook. While it’s a good movie, it also stands as a fine example of why I stray toward flicks where you can laugh as someone is devoured by a wood chipper: serious horror movies are also the most depressing (non-Holocaust-related) films in the world.

—And I don’t mean “depressing because innocent people are terrorized by a supernatural force intent on killing them.” Strip out all the traditionally “horror” elements from The Babadook, and you’ve still got the grindingly morose tale of a woman whose husband died on the way to the hospital the day her son was born, and that son, an obnoxious first-grader who clearly suffers from a severe personality disorder. They’re both majorly screwed up–but in ways that are drearily believable.

In that sense, the movie The Babadook most reminded me of was The Shining, in that both films are horror movies before the first supernatural element even appears. At their core, they’re about messed up, unhappy families trying to figure things out . . . and failing spectacularly.

There’s an interesting schism in the horror world between “fun” movies and “serious” ones. In the “fun” movies, where you take a date and scream together at jump scares, the victims tend to be entitled, pretty, and/or rich—people you don’t mind seeing get their comeuppance. In the “serious” ones, on the other hand, unspeakable terror is visited upon normal folks—often folks whose lives are already a struggle. Most of the “great” horror movies fall into that category: The Shining, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and so on.

I get why we like the first kind of story, but I’ve often wondered why we enjoy the latter. What is the attraction of watching average people beset by real-world problems be subjected to further punishment in the form of the supernatural? Maybe it’s a “there but for the grace of God go I” aspect, but oftentimes the victims in “serious” horror movies have done nothing to deserve what happens to them. And perhaps that’s the perverse attraction: we’ve all experienced the cosmic randomness and unfairness of the universe, and maybe it’s nice to watch an explanation for why the world seems to have it in for us sometimes, no matter how monstrous.

Of course, this being a horror movie, the monster is real: the eponymous Babadook, which is unleashed upon mother and son via the time-honored vessel of the otherwise innocent-looking yet intensely creepy children’s book. And the movie does present some supernaturally creepy moments. But nothing compares to the horror of daily life for mother and son. The Babadook is almost superfluous—and in fact, SPOILER, does more to bring mother and son closer in the end than any of their family, friends, or interested/disinterested authority figures. Our protagonists are in a better place by the end of the movie, mostly thanks to the horror they’ve overcome.

In that sense, maybe The Babadook isn’t as depressing as I thought? Maybe this creature exists to force families through a harrowing ordeal, thereby strengthening their bond? Hmm. I like that theory.

In the meantime, I give The Babadook full credit for maintaining a high level of tension for an hour and a half. Though that does leave me with a question: Who lets a young child star in a movie like this? Wouldn’t you be worried about your boy suffering some psychological scars after weeks of playing opposite a “mother” who goes crazy, screams at him, and at one point tries to kill him while under the monster’s influence? I’d love to hear from any parents who care to weigh in on this.

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