As a child, Jennifer Kent says she put on her first play at age seven. She wrote stories and in her late teens, chose acting as her career path. As an adult, Kent enjoys visceral cinema. “I like films where I’m forced to feel something. I want to be put through something.”
After an acting career with roles in Australian TV series like Murder Call and All Saints, she grew bored telling other people’s stories and decided to go back to writing her own. “Writing was always a natural desire for me, a compulsion. I did it until I auditioned for drama school.”
She convinced director Lars Von Trier to allow her to shadow him while he made Dogville. “I wasn’t aware at that stage [when I chose acting] that women could direct films,” she said.
In 2005, she directed a short, Monster and while she moved on to write and develop feature-length scripts, Kent said those never received the support she imagined. “My scripts were too out there and Screen Australia said they were too ambitious financially, so I needed an idea that was contained and more intimate and this idea of facing your shadow-side is my myth, something I think is really important in life.” So expanding on the idea of Monster, Kent set out writing a script based on what happens when a person doesn’t face stuff.
The result is The Babadook, a horror film that received rave reviews when it premiered at Sundance in 2014. It’s a far cry from most horror films that are made these days. It’s not a slasher film, there are no cheap thrills or predictable storylines, but instead a horror film with genuine chills, a monster based in personal psyche, and a creepy, well-composed picture.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a working mom, who manages a full-time nursing job with her six-year-old son Samuel. On her way to the hospital to give birth to her son, her husband was killed in a car accident. Samuel still believes there are monsters and creates his own weapons to destroy them. Like most six year olds, he’s a handful and Amelia struggles to deal with his problems at school as well as with his cousin (her sister’s daughter.)
One night, Amelia picks up a new book to read to her son, Mr. Babadook. But unlike most bedtime stories, this one doesn’t have a happy ending. Mr. Babadook wants in, but once you let him, he’ll never leave. Of course Samuel is terrified and Amelia stays up most of the night with him. When Samuel has an incident in the car the next day, convinced he’s seen the Babadook, Amelia is terrified and takes him to a doctor, who reluctantly gives them both medication in order to sleep.
Amelia tries to get rid of the book, but of course, it returns. This time, the story has changed slightly. Now Amelia is prominently featured in the picture book as the victim of the Babadook, first killing her dog, then her son, then herself.
Of course the Babadook really preys on Amelia because she’s still struggling with the death of her husband. “Amelia is hanging on by a thread and she’s like, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine. I’ll do something for you.’ And that’s a typically feminine trait and I think it has massive repercussions. You get the suppression and then underneath the nice girl is the monster that’s waiting to explode,” Kent says.
Kent also set out to let audiences decide what exactly the monster, the Babadook is. “And I hope that the deeper reasons why I wrote this script will reach the audience, so it’s not just a film that will scare them but that it’s a film that will move them in other ways. That’s my hope.”
While Kent has mostly discussed how the film is ultimately about how Amelia isn’t dealing with her grief and it’s really her suppression of feelings that allows the Babadook to grow and feed on her, the film can appeal to a wide range of people who struggle with various mental monsters. For me, as someone who has struggled with depression, I took away parallels between Amelia’s struggle with the Babadook and my own struggle with depression. It’s something you think you may have tamed or dealt with, but then it comes rearing back. Like the book said, once it’s in, it will never truly leave. But within Amelia’s strength, I was reminded of my own.
Much like Amelia, Kent has been called brave and strong-willed. She doesn’t seem bothered by Hollywood’s reputation towards female directors. “It is to my advantage that there are so few of us and that Hollywood has kindly gotten with the program and realizes there needs to be more of us. Now it’s not just female filmmakers making romantic comedies, but there are female filmmakers across the board. It’s no longer a realm for women that’s impossible.”
Kent is currently developing two scripts which will also be filmed in Australia. One is a revenge thriller set in Tasmania in the 1820s and the other is a multi-protagonist drama, inspired by her dad’s last week on earth, that’s set across three different generations and three different time periods. HBO has also been talking to her about developing a television series.
Essie Davis, who plays Amelia in The Babadook, and knew Kent before the film from their acting days, says, “Jen is an incredibly strong willed woman. She doesn’t find the film business anymore sexist than anything else she’s experienced in the rest of the world. She’s made it on her own terms. I think with a lot of development, a lot of Australian films, there’s a lot of money being handled, and people have to be trusted that hopefully the film will make more money. But there’s got to be a level of trust, if someone has a vision. I think Jen really sticks to her guns.”
Whether it’s in Australia or Hollywood, with Kent sticking by those guns, it seems we’ll be seeing more from her.
In the mean time, don’t let the Babadook in.