The Babadook is the most frightening movie ever made about a picture book. The eponymous creature lurking within its pages comes to life to terrorize a mother and her young son. It skitters across the ceiling of their bedrooms, hides out in their basement, and infects their dreams. It turns the boy into a wretched little brat and the mother into a knife-wielding maniac. It obliterates their sanity along with their parent-child bond. But here’s the thing: The black-hatted, black-cloaked, faceless Babadook may not even exist at all. Such is the spooky, psychological terrain of this immensely satisfying debut feature from Australian director Jennifer Kent.
A scene from "The Babadook." Sundance Film Festival.
The Babadook opens with a nightmare, one which our soon to be very distraught mother Amelia (Essie Davis, in a powerful performance), has had before: Her husband is violently killed in a car accident. She wakes up and, of course, the nightmare is real. Amelia sleepwalks through her job at a senior living center, consumed with memories of her dead husband and inattentive to the emotional needs of her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who is an increasingly aggressive, seriously disturbed handful. Samuel asks his mom to read him "The Babadook," which has mysteriously appeared on his bedroom bookshelf. It consists of short incantations darkly suggesting death and murder, which promise to summon the creepy cutout figure from the book’s pages. Even in her sleep-deprived state, Amelia has the good sense to first hide the book, and then later, to destroy it completely. Or so she thinks.
Kent knows she is working in over-charted territory here: the freaked-out female protagonist, the possessed child, the cold morgue of a house, the creature in the closet. In the pedestrian hands of almost any other horror film director, nearly all of them male, the movie would quickly descend into a shrieking bloodbath. But Kent understands this woman’s pain.
Amelia not only misses her husband, she resents her child’s presence. She feels trapped, lonely, miserable and guilty. She hates herself for hating her own kid. It’s as if she is suffering through the longest bout of post-partum depression ever, except this one is punctuated by a cruel twist of irony, which Samuel reveals to a social worker halfway through the film. That reveal occurs at a moment when Amelia, already at the end of her mental rope, is primed to unleash the Babadook’s full power. Amelia’s tormented id transforms her into a woman who is terrified one minute, and terrifying the next. Samuel may be emotionally damaged, but Amelia has gone ‘round the bend. The question is, will she come back, and what will she look like if she returns?
The director’s masterful control of mood and pacing sustains the film through some of its more predictable passages, and when Kent evokes the great horror films of the past, she picks the right ones. There are echoes of Jack Clayton’s The Innocents in Samuel’s pasty-faced psychopathy and Amelia’s haunted mental state. When the Babadook invades her body, one can’t help but think of Rosemary’s Baby, in both the sex-with-the-devil sequence and that movie’s claustrophobic daylight horrors. Essie Davis channels Piper Laurie’s caterwauling matriarch from Carrie in one scene, and then in another recalls Shelley Duvall’s hysterical mom from The Shining.
Davis is tremendous as Amelia, claiming our sympathies while scaring the bejesus out of us. Horror films are rarely nominated for awards anymore, but this actor has turned in a phenomenal performance, and the film itself is one of the more complex adrenaline rides you’ll take this year. Kent and Davis are certainly talents to watch. As for the creeping, sinuous Babadook itself, be careful how you care for your repressed emotions and fragile states of denial. You may have to lock them in the basement, and then tend to them for a very long time.
This review appeared earlier on the writer's blog, The Restless Critic.