This, I suppose, is what our age of streaming media is good for. When The Babadook arrived in the US from Australia in 2014, it fell into a netherworld between genre cinema and arthouse cinema, as if it wasn’t enough of one or the other to be cleanly categorized. It was treated, essentially, as a niche release: it never played in more than 100 theaters at once and disappeared without grossing even $1 million. But after it spent several years of being streamable on Netflix, good luck finding any clique of millennials where at least one member of the group doesn’t know it. It’s enough of a cult sensation that the villain could be adopted, both deliciously and inexplicably, as an LGBT icon, which is the sort of thing only a generation that grew up on irony, social consciousness, and message boards could do.
A widowed, stressed single mother, her disturbed son, and a creaky house: it is all director Jennifer Kent needs, and the ingredients are fraught with opportunity. Horror cinema has no shortage of either tyrannical parent figures or creepy children—but in The Babadook, which has been sent to torment which? Part of the cleverness of the film is that the answer keeps shifting, as a duo locked together finds themselves under attack by a demonic creature that appears mysteriously in a picture book. Kent said that she wanted to make a film addressing a taboo of motherhood: the idea that a mother under pressure can at times resent the presence of her child.
The film was a hit with critics, cinephiles, and genre buffs for having what so many horror films lack, like psychology, color schemes, and a point. Whether it has enough narrative material to fill 95 minutes is debatable, but that’s never stopped up-and-comers before. Jennifer Kent clearly studied her vintage Polanski thrillers, not just for the claustrophobia, horror, and paranoid hallucinations, but for the morbid sense of humor. (It also can’t be a coincidence that the maternal heroine bares a striking resemblance to Mia Farrow, Rosemary herself). She knows how to wield a camera, and she seems to be keeping Hollywood at something of a safe distance. I’m curious to see where she goes next.
Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.