How 'The Babadook' Became the Horror Film of the Year

Article Image
Photo Source: Matt Nettheim

Horror films can be a special brand of terrible: bad scripts, worse acting, a flimsy premise, and women relegated to big-breasted victims lacking the common sense it takes to not go into the basement. But when horror-thrillers scratch at something deeper in the human psyche, that’s when the supernatural can take on an eerie persona—like the terrifying, top-hatted beast in Australian horror film “The Babadook.”

Following widowed mother Amelia (Essie Davis) and the increasingly strained relationship she has with her disobedient son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), writer-director Jennifer Kent’s film picks up years after Amelia loses her husband in a car accident while rushing to the hospital to give birth. That trauma has burrowed deep inside her, festering into a quiet resentment toward the young Samuel and a debilitating avoidance of her grief that spirals into bouts of depression, insomnia, and rage.

“That always was my driving passion with the script: to create this character who was drowning,” explains former actor Kent. “She’s suffering and drowning in her own suppression of things she thought she couldn’t deal with, so it’s a film about heading toward dealing with those things, for me. Of course there are the supernatural elements, and the film can be viewed a number of different ways—and that was deliberate on my part—but the core of it was always focusing on that woman.”

In a particular bit of genius from Kent, Amelia’s mental state seeps into the entire world of the film. Painted in shades of blue and gray with dashes of faded pastels (painstakingly created in-camera without the use of gels on lights or postproduction manipulation), her house feels stuck in a perpetual state of ashen mourning. It’s the perfect environment with which to welcome the Babadook, a gothic, monochrome monster in a children’s pop-up book that mysteriously appears in Samuel’s room. After they read the bedtime story, both mother and son find their dreams haunted by the creature—until the line between sleeping and waking becomes increasingly blurred.

“He understood the whole story of the Babadook, but a much more G-rated version,” Kent explains of the then-6-year-old Wiseman, “so I had to feel everything with him and act everything with him to give him permission to go to those really tough places. If he needed to get angry [in a scene], I would get angry with him and we’d talk about why and really get to that space together. He’s incredible because the thing about Noah is he’s not at all like that; he’s really a quiet, sensitive, shy kid, and so for him to be that character, it really is an acting performance.”

In addition to themes of repression and mental illness, the film also tackles the struggles of motherhood. “It’s a difficult, challenging role and very hard for any actor to do,” Kent says of Amelia. “The fact that I was aware of that helped us, because [Essie] trusted I would never make her look foolish or push in ways that were unhelpful. It’s important a director pushes her actors—but in the right way—because I feel an actor’s responsible for character and the director’s responsible for story. And Essie developed that beautiful character from the script, and I just had to make sure everything was pitched right.”

Inspired by this post? Check out our film audition listings!



Author Headshot
Briana Rodriguez
Briana is the Editor-in-Chief at Backstage. She oversees editorial operations and covers all things film and television. She's interested in stories about the creative process as experienced by women, people of color, and other marginalized communities. You can find her on Twitter @brirodriguez and on Instagram @thebrianarodriguez
See full bio and articles here!