If you want horror to be horrifying — scary, as opposed to simply tense or shocking — then it helps to shine a light into the those real-life dark corners that people would rather not investigate. <em>The Babadook</em> does just that, gazing steadily upon the strained and fraying mother-love that the widow Amelia (a stellar Essie Davis) bears her troubled son Samuel. Samuel is forever encountering a monster, you see — or is it just that he's sneaking down to the basement to go through (dead) Dad's things? Either way, he's very hard to live with, especially without a sympathetic grownup by your side. The shadowy Babadook shows up a little ways in via a silly-but-chilling children's book, but Sam knows the shadows were already there in their unhomey home. Writer-director Jennifer Kent lets the dread creep in slowly and wisely goes easy on the effects; she knows that hand-drawn pop-ups can be more than enough to unsettle things. Also, that sympathy is what makes horror truly harrowing.
Matthew Lickona: How did you pitch this?
Jennifer Kent: It’s funny, because all the things that people are liking about it are the things that the financiers said wouldn’t work. But I think it’s about being gently persuasive and persistent in your vision. I pitched it as a love story, actually, between a mother and a son. She just has to go through hell to get there. For me, that’s what was really important about this film: those positive, loving aspects. We pitched the light through the dark.
ML: This sort of started out as a short film (Monster, 2005). Can you talk about the developments that took place in taking it from short to feature?
JK: When I was making Monster, I wasn’t planning Babadook. But I was working on a number of films that were quite big and ambitious in terms of budget, and they just kept getting to a point and not getting made. And this other idea kept pulling me back. So, I thought I’d see what happened if I tried to develop it. It just happened by accident, really. For me, it was always about the woman — her story — and less about the monster. I’m not saying that the Babadook is extraneous, but it springs out of the woman’s particular story. So the woman and her story were the biggest developments.
ML: Talk about developing the actual children’s book about the Babadook that’s featured in the film.
JK: I was thinking, “How does this thing come into the house? How does this energy arrive?” And from the get go, it made sense that it would be a book. A book communicates something to you that it contains, and it can grow. Then this silly, strange name developed, and then the rhyming couplets. We developed it very early on, probably six months before we started shooting. The world of the film radiates out from the book. It’s not just a prop or a device for me; it’s an important core element of the story.
ML: I got a kick out out of the snippets of late-night TV that Amelia takes in while she’s staying up all night. Could you talk about finding the bits you used? And what was the old cartoon into which you inserted the Babadook?
JK: Everything on the TV directly relates to Amelia or confronts her in some way. It was all kind of serendipitous; my editor and I had a lot of fun putting it together. I’d say, “I need a cartoon about x,” and I’d Google it, and things would come up on YouTube very quickly. It was just a matter of, “Can we afford it?” It was a producer’s nightmare, but they were real troopers about it. I think we used an old Betty Boop cartoon, from before they got sanitized. They were pretty scary.
ML: I know you don’t want to ruin the ending for people, and maybe you don’t even want to answer a question like this, but how would you describe the ending in terms of emotional affect?
JK: I guess it comes back to my original pitch that something is moving through hell to get to something worthwhile. I think we’re left with something real. I didn’t want to create a film where it’s, “These nice people had something bad happen, and then they woke up and it was all fine.” The whole point of the film is that terrible things happen to people, and they have to find a way to live with that. That was important to me, because that’s my experience of life. I could only go from what I felt was true.
ML: In your interview with New York magazine, you said, “I think a lot of filmmakers who make horror now go in with dubious motives.” What are the right motives for making horror?
JK: I think they’re the same reasons I hope anyone would have for making a film, which is to share an idea or a point of view. If filmmakers can really focus on what makes them tick and what they want to say, then I think the result has a natural resonance. Not with everyone, but with the people who get that idea. The horror genre is so often cynical: “People like this, so I’m going to make it like this.” That’s not the way it works. And then, often, the motivation is to make money, and if you’re making a film to make money, well, God help you, really. It’s not the best reason. And it’s usually the audience that suffers.
ML: You also called horror a “pure form of cinema.” Care to unpack that?
JK: I think it’s very close to a dream. It can play with time. It doesn’t have to be naturalistic. Cinema, for me, is like a dream, or it can be. So what makes horror pure is that it has the potential to be very cinematic. A lot of the early horror films were arthouse films that were as beautiful as they were terrifying.
ML: Finally, the New York piece included this: “Much like The Exorcist, The Babadook revolves around an unspeakable horror visiting an ordinary suburban family.” But what I kept thinking of was The Shining — the tension between a parent and a child, and the horror that arises from the straining of that relationship.
JK: The comparison to The Shining makes sense to me. I didn’t set out to emulate any other film, but since I’ve watched horror since I was a kid, I guess that I can’t help but be influenced.