Episode 36. Mommy Dearest: The Babadook (2014) and Goodnight Mommy (2014)

MommyDearestEveryone’s got mother issues, right? This episode examines the perceived and manifested strains on maternal instinct once malevolent forces enter the picture. Alex and Andrea investigate where these forces come from and what they truly want.

REQUIRED READING

The Babadook. Dir Jennifer Kent, 2014.
Goodnight Mommy. Dirs Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, 2014.

EXTRA CREDIT

Monster. Jennifer Kent’s short film on which The Babadook was based.

The Mommy Trap: Four recent horror movies by women explore the most troubling aspects of motherhood.

Talking to the Directors of the Horror Film ‘Goodnight Mommy. Vice talks to the directors about the origins of the film.

COURSE NOTES

 Intro song: Nail Ballet from Nightmare Picture Theatre, courtesy of James Zirco Fisher.
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21 thoughts on “Episode 36. Mommy Dearest: The Babadook (2014) and Goodnight Mommy (2014)

  1. love_rob says:

    What was the deal with the bugs? Both films had bug scenes (and gross, the one that went in her mouth) and while I think it’s a coincidence I’m not sure what to make of that.

    • Andrea says:

      That’s true – we really should have pointed out that both films feature bugs! They’re often used in horror to suggest infestation/contamination/decay. I imagine that Elias’ keeping them as pets has something to do with his harboring an insidious fantasy and trying to infect his mother with it?

  2. Steve Sick says:

    I think that the Japanese film “Dark Water” covers many of these same topics. Not certain on the American remake as I haven’t seen it.

  3. Steve Sick says:

    Elements of Goodnight Mommy on the surface reminded me of the Korean movie “Tale of Two Sisters” (lit. “Rose Flower, Red Lotus”), but I’ll need to check out “Goodnight Mommy” now.

  4. I find it curious that Alex didn’t connect with The Babadook, but both of you seemed to have connected so strongly with Goodnight Mommy. I had the opposite experience. You ladies discussed your own attitudes towards potential motherhood, and I wonder if I’m not being overly presumptuous in thinking this may be a factor. Forgive me if I am. In discussing The Babadook with my friends, those who had children were far more affected by the film than those who didn’t. As a father, I felt the fears of lashing against your own child, of becoming the monster they feared, very potent. Nearly every parent has those moments when we yell in anger and almost immediately regret it, and this movie amplifies those feelings to an artistically impressive degree. After having kids, it’s nearly impossible to not become more sensitive to violence towards children in movies, and it can change perspectives on what we find effective in horror films (just as most are not nearly as sympathetic to teens in slasher films than we may have been when we were closer to that age).

    Also, I wouldn’t go so far as to call the metaphor’s for grief in the film “on the nose,” but that they resonated and were recognized by audiences without explicitly spelling it out is cause for the movie’s praise. Additionally, I think there’s many ways in which the film could be read, though people get hung up on seeing it all as coming from Amelia when there’s ample evidence in the film that Sam might very well be causing things. Lastly, the nods to early genre cinema really helped to sell me on the film.

    On the other hand, the obvious twist in Goodnight Mommy, which was clear to me within the first five minutes, served only to distract me while watching it. I still can’t see why the filmmakers wanted to leave Lukas’s death as a twist until the end. I feel the film would have been better served if they addressed it early on, because I felt like its obvious nature was a red herring that would turn a trope on its head, and of course it didn’t. I liked how they had the audience switch their allegiance through the film, but I wasn’t satisfied by the narrative shift. Also, the conflicts between the mother and Elias didn’t feel as real to me as those between Amelia and Sam. When that last shot came, I was numb, and the more I thought about the movie the more frustrating and possibly superfluous some of the decisions made during it became. I’ll give it another try in the future, and maybe I’ll come away with a more positive assessment of it. The Babadook got better with repeat viewings, and maybe this one will too.

    • Andrea says:

      I don’t find the idea that our position informs our readings of the movies as presumptuous at all! In fact, that’s why we get so personal on the show – we believe that our individual experiences are hugely important when it comes to film analysis. I would actually find it far more presumptuous if somebody claimed to know the ONE TRUE READING of a film, regardless of their privilege or position. Thanks for sharing your viewpoint!

    • love_rob says:

      The ‘twist’ in Goodnight Mommy didn’t really feel like it was intended to be a twist to me. Though it definitely fits nicely into preconceptions of twists in horror films. I felt it added tension to scenes that would otherwise be mundane. We know Lukas is dead, we know Elias believes him to be present and we know that the mother doesn’t realize the extent to which this fantasy has gripped Elias. It created suspense by making us wait for all this to come to a head.

      • The filmmakers not addressing it until the very end makes it feel like a twist to me, just not a very good one. It’s telegraphed almost immediately, and in the end I didn’t think it added to the story. The basic film would have remained had both boys been doing these things or just one (plus it would fix retrospective errors in the film such as it clearly requiring two people to glue her mouth shut, or questioning who she almost ran into when one of the boys was vacuuming and the other was searching for the cat). Instead of adding tension for me or suspense, it added frustration that the film didn’t just come out and say it and instead played it out exactly like so many films we’ve seen before. I was actually hoping the twist would be that she COULD see Lukas, and had really been ignoring him, whether he was alive or not. Perhaps part of it for me is fatigue in seeing the it-was-all-in-their-head-all-along bit played out too often. I would have rather we kept with the twins’ paranoia throughout the film and left the exact nature of the mother more ambiguous – that film would have been more challenging and, I think, more satisfactory. I think the movie in terms of visuals and pacing is well-made, but the script really felt overly tropish. As I said, I’ll give it another shot some time, but I saw it so recently that my irritation is still fresh and it’ll be a while before I return to it objectively.

    • I’m glad to hear someone else read The Babadook as something caused by both Amelia and Sam. For me, The Babadook was a metaphor for their relationship which had been badly broken by the death of Amelia’s husband/Sam’s father. The ending posited that while that relationship may never be exactly the same, it can still thrive as long as Amelia and Sam are willing to work on it.

    • dafs says:

      I honestly don’t understand how someone can call The Babadook “on the nose” and prefer Goodnight Mommy. I’ve never been able to get over the fact that when the boys try to escape the house, they end up in a field full of fire and a guy with a pitchfork. I felt like the filmmaker was slapping me in the head saying “DO YOU GET IT??? DO YOU GET WHAT I’M GOING FOR???” Yes, I get it.

  5. SlothIsLegend says:

    Any ideas as to the nature of Lukas’ death in Goodnight Mommy? I think the beginning holds some clues…when Elias is calling for Lukas while he’s floating in the lake (maybe he drowned?) and when Lukas enters the dark cave while Elias just stands there (maybe he fell to his death in the cave?)

    • Andrea says:

      I also had an inkling that Lukas drowned in the lake… between Elias calling out to him while afloat and his weird idea to preserve the dead cat underwater, there might be something there!

      • SlothIsLegend says:

        Oh yeah, the cat! Definitely something there, I gotta watch again to see if Elias has any other weird things with water.

        • LRoads says:

          I also think the picture that Elias holds on to in memory of his “real” mother, the one with him and Lukas with her, they are in bathing suits at a beach or a lake?

  6. Here’s something rather interesting that I realized when listening to this month’s episode: I’m a male, but in two movies that featured a mother/son relationship, I immediately identified with the mother. In Babadook, I felt Amelia’s frustration with Sam to the point where it became unpleasant for me to watch the movie because there were times where I just wanted to smack this kid.

    In Goodnight Mommy, I’ll admit I realized that Lukas was dead fairly early on, but as love_rob mentioned above I don’t think they were necessarily hiding it as a big twist reveal. But it did inform my viewing as I had a feeling that it would wind up with Elias doing something horrible to his mother. As it became clear that I was right, it was again an unpleasant experience, particularly when the movie slipped into the more realistic style as it neared its climax.

    I appreciate both of these movies as being well-made. but I honestly don’t know if I want to see them again. This is particularly the case for Goodnight Mommy, which was just so damn bleak. As a horror fan I’m well aware that the world can be a bleak place, but Goodnight Mommy didn’t offer me anything to make the experience worth it.

  7. Bob says:

    The ambiguity at the opening of Goodnight Mommy leaves much open to interpretation. You (or one of you, I’m sorry–I forget which) thought she was having elective cosmetic surgery, part of a process of rediscovering herself as an individual.

    I, on the other hand, assumed she was just returning from the hospital, the surgery part of her recovery from whatever accident claimed the father and Lukas.

    Regardless of why she was in the hospital, there is no indication of who was taking care of Elias in her absence.

    Which is fine–this is a reminder that this isn’t a case of the filmmakers providing us with all the pieces and we just need to fit them together to find the solution. They have intentionally left things unanswered. And then we get to fill in the holes with our own ideas. Fun!

    And I guess I sort of agree with the Revenant Review above–as a father, I was completely hooked by and sympathetic to the mother in The Babadook. When you have a child, he or she may be a problem child, but he/she is still *your* child and your responsibility is to the kid, regardless what a freak/pain-in-the-ass/whatever he/she is.

    In Goodnight Mommy, I also guessed that Lukas was dead from the third scene (in which the mom pours a drink for Elias but not for Lukas). I did not feel like I was on his side for the first two acts–I fully expected the horror in this horror movie to come from him.

    I loved The Babadook and liked Goodnight Mommy. I’ve only recently discovered your podcast and I’m enjoying it very much. Thanks!

  8. Rhys Sampson says:

    As a father who worked 2nd shift to watch children while my wife continued to teach, I found myself sleeping, on average, 20 hours a week. I couldn’t imagine raising any of our children without my wife’s help and support.

    My take on The Babadook was that the creature itself was more of a symbol of exhaustion than anything else. Existing on the few hours of sleep working parents get is difficult for any one. If you add to that situation the loud egocentric chaos that children bring into your life, maintaining basic civility, much less the nurturing nature that is supposed to exist between parent and child is a monumental battle, not unlike the struggles the mother in this film has to face. The urge to lash out at the source of the insanity which has become your life at times becomes an almost overwhelming tide.

    In the end, you learn to accept your altered state of mind, and your altered situation. You learn to make peace with your own exhaustion, and make sacrifices to it; if that means daddy sleeps in on weekends and misses family events on occasions, or you need to feed the beast earthworms in a bowl in your basement, you find some way to cope and move on with your life.

    I found the acting, cinematography, and direction to all be well done in an effort that touched me personally as I reflected on battling my own monsters in the past.

    Thanks for your take on this one.

    Love the podcast!

  9. NoiseFloor says:

    I had one slightly different interpretation in The Babadook: when she sees the Babadook at the neighbor’s house, I took it to be her neighbor’s *own* Babadook. I loved that because it was as if to say, “We’ve all got our own grief and baggage to carry around.”

    I know this is late, but I just found this podcast (love it), and listened to this episode.

  10. Sloame Ocean says:

    Great episode, as always. I held off listening until I finally got round to watching ‘Goodnight Mommy’ earlier in the week.

    Of the two, I have to say that I preferred The Babadook. That’s almost certainly got a lot to do with the circumstances under which I saw it: I watched it a couple of days before flying back home to visit my own mother whose depression and suicidal thoughts I’d just been made aware of. I’m sure you can imagine that any film that foregrounded themes of maternal relations, grief and depression as much as this film does was bound to resonate with me in a massive way. The fact that it was scary as fuck, riffed on genre history and was quite original, only sealed the deal.

    One common factor that I definitely feel bears repeating between the two films is the isolation that parenthood, and specifically here, motherhood, imposes upon you. I have a 10-year old son and fortunately, being married to his mum, can have no real idea of what single-parenting must be like. But I do feel that the few occasions when my wife has been away for extended periods have given me a brief glimpse into the sheer fucking relentless nature of raising a child by yourself and that both films here did an amazing job of tackling this aspect of parenting. There’s probably a whole essay to be written on this theme but I’ll leave it here by saying that for me it was the isolation that society permitted in both films that was one of the most horrifying aspects of each…

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