I finally rented Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, a lean, masterful synthesis of seminal psychological horror films The Shining (Kubrick, 1980) and Repulsion (Polanski, 1965). From The Shining, Kent adapts the parent-as-monster and boy visionary. From Repulsion, she takes the isolated woman disturbed by sexuality, and the victim who, when her pain can’t be shared, succumbs to adopting the ultimately self-destructive perception of herself from the point of view of others. The hypnagogic imagery depicts a woman dissociated from herself and the passage of time, keeping the viewer constantly on the fence: is this a story of the supernatural, or are we simply seeing the world through the protagonist’s psychosis?
The film leans heavily in the direction of a creatively-told psychological tale of a combination of Munchausen-by-proxy, unresolved grief, misplaced survivor’s guilt, and resentment, denuding much of the more visually spectacular horror scenes of their typical horror-genre immediacy. In this way, the most anxiety-inducing moments of the film direct viewers not to their own sense of self-preservation, nor to fear of the unknown as represented by the possibility of an actual embodiment of supernatural evil, but instead towards a mother’s concerns: the well-being of others, here the mother, Amelia, in particular, the adequacy of our protagonist’s parenting, and the well-being of “the boy”, Sam. This is a horror film of compassion, a film whose top concern is not self-preservation-by-proxy, but, remarkably, compassion for others. This is the particular genius of Kent’s film. Her storytelling makes the obvious, terrific, bone-chilling imagery secondary, subtle, and allows the human concerns behind our fears to take the center stage.