The Babadook, which came out on DVD last week, is quite possibly the most terrifying film of the last ten years. When I saw it in the cinema, I spent the final hour with my hands over my eyes, wondering exactly how the director had managed to get so many images directly from my nightmares. I’m not the only one who feels that way, either – every time I’ve mentioned it to somebody else, they’ve grinned a lot and said something along the lines of, “Imagine! A horror movie that’s actually scary!”
Part of its scariness comes from the film’s tight focus. The Babadook is about the relationship between a young widow (Amelia) and her son (Sam), and, for the most part, Amelia and Sam are the only people we’re bothered about. There are plenty of supporting characters, but they gradually disappear as the film goes on – by which I mean that we, the audience, don’t see them anymore, not that they’re used as monster fodder. Make no mistake, this is not the kind of horror film where mutilated bodies fall from the ceiling as a cheap shock. This is the kind of horror film where the heroine becomes increasingly alone, with nobody to turn to with her grief over her late husband and her fear of losing her mind and harming her son.
The Babadook doesn’t just tap into adult fears, though. The titular monster might be a metaphor for Amelia’s ambivalence towards motherhood, but it’s also a creepy bogeyman with razor-sharp claws and a top hat (seriously, I have no idea how the director knew I used to have nightmares about werewolves in top hats. I think I should be informed). When Amelia and Sam first find and read the pop-up book that summons the Babadook, it takes you right back to every book that scared you as a small child. It’s a film about monsters hiding in your wardrobe, under your bed and in all the dark corners of the world around you and it’s fantastic.
The Babadook is an Australian film, and, to be honest, I’m a little worried that some huge American studio will get hold of the rights and try to remake it just because they can. They wouldn’t necessarily turn Amelia into a busty teenager and the barely-seen stop-motion monster into a mess of CGI that pops up to annoy you every five minutes, but they might, say, add on a pointless backstory. We don’t need to see Amelia tracking down previous Babadook victims and learning about the monster’s origins – the whole point is that she has no idea what’s going on and she needs to work out how to deal with it on her own. Nor do we need every horror movie to end on a sudden twist just for the sake of one last scare. Sometimes, it’s OK to have a bit of resolution, even if it does make it harder to do a sequel.
Horror is an easy genre to get wrong, so when you find a film that gets it as right as The Babadook does, it’s a real delight. It introduces you to two likeable main characters and a scary monster and proceeds to take the central threat completely seriously without descending into humourlessness. It makes you see things from the point of view of both a frightened little boy and a woman who worries that she might be capable of terrible things. It’s scary in a way that doesn’t involve jump-scares or buckets of blood. Those things aren’t half as scary as the thought of what might be hiding in the shadows… or in the darkest parts of your own mind.