Have you seen one of the best reviewed horror film of the past decade, The Babadook? Not like Roy Frumkes has. Here, he gives his thoughts and examines the film’s classical subtext.
A number of students have been praising The Babadook, an Australian horror flick released in theaters late last year, so I picked up a copy at Barnes and Noble for fifteen bucks and watched it (apprehensively, I should add. I still get spooked by certain types of scare shows – recently, one evening, I had to turn off Jessabelle about halfway through, and finished watching it the following day).
The title had turned me off when the film originally played the cinema circuit. But I suspected it was good based on my students’ praise. And it was. A demon-tormenting-a- broken-family tale, it has a powerful central performance by actress Essie Davis, who’s all repressed rage and despair in the first two acts, then lets go with pyrotechnics we didn’t know she contained. It’s her performance that really ennobles the film.
Ms. Davis, like Hollywood icon of yesteryear Merle Oberon (Wuthering Heights), was born in Tasmania, but has appeared in plays, films, and on TV worldwide, including winning two Laurence Olivier awards from the Royal National Theater in England, as well as being nominated for a Tony for her role in Tom Stoppard’s “Jumpers” on Broadway. But we’re not familiar with her face just yet, which serves the role in The Babadook well.
However, it’s the derivation of The Babadook that most startled me, more even than Ms. Davis’s bravura performance.
Only two weeks ago in my History of Horror class, I showed the 1961 version of The Innocents, the best of many cinematic translations of Henry James’ “Turn of the Screw,” directed by Jack Clayton, adapted by Truman Capote, and starring Deborah Kerr. The story is about a governess hired to take care of the education and welfare of two willful children at a vast, secluded country estate, where the previous governess died under mysterious circumstances, as had her sexual tormentor, Quint. In the end, we’re not sure if the mansion is haunted, if the children are possessed, or if the governess is insane. Or all three.
Much to my surprise and delight, I found myself watching a remake of The Innocents buried just below the surface of The Babadook. A woman who we see from the first scene is unhinged, barely endures the emotional turmoil of a difficult, aggressive child. As in The Innocents, the boy is forced to leave school for bad behavior. In The Innocents a bug crawls out of a statue’s mouth. Here the bug emerges from a crack in the wall. In the 1961 version, the governess puts a face on the ghostly specter after she’s seen Quint’s picture in a locket. Here, the mother begins to see the Babadook in her bedroom after having read her son from the book about the creature and seeing what it looks like.
The look of the Babadook is also derivative. In my first Horror Class I discuss and show the work of Lon Chaney, the first great horror actor/make-up artist. His films are well known even if his name isn’t – The Phantom of the Opera, The H, etc. Chaney made 160 films, a hundred of which are considered lost. One of his lost films –London After Midnight, released in 1927, was named in a court case. A man in England was put on trial for murder and attempted suicide and, in his defense, claimed he’d just seen London After Midnight and was rendered temporarily insane.
Well, Chaney’s ‘look’ in that film, as a vampire with two rows of plentiful sharp teeth, a black cape and black high hat, is exactly what the Babadook looks like. Co-incidence? It can’t be, but just in case any of you doubt my claim, later in the film the mother and her son are watching TV and the program being show is Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera in an obvious admission that they took one of his great creations to be their monster.
If I’ve gotten you curious, you should check The Babadook out. In addition to all its classical subtext, it’s a good film.