Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s sensitive, yet terrifying, The Babadook has the ring of truth. It has a realistic explanation for everything that happens, up until the point where reality starts bending, curving into a finely built finale that transforms the horror into metaphor. Amelia (Essie Davis) was widowed by a car crash on the day her son Samuel was born. As the boy’s 7th birthday approaches, the air in their dark house is starting to get a little thick. Amelia works in an old folks’ home, and the routine tasks are becoming too much for her. Even after these many years, she’s caught in the fork of deep grief: if people ask how she’s doing, she bristles. If they don’t ask about her feelings, she gets furious. Her relationship with Samuel (the remarkable Noah Wiseman) is not quite in sync: the little boy is three-quarters in a fantasy world, and when he hugs her, he’s maybe a little too ardent for his mother’s liking. And he’s in trouble at school. One day, a children’s book titled “Mr Babadook” turns up on the porch. Samuel reads it, and is obsessed about the monster in it, a top-hatted, knife-fingered boogeyman. Amelia at last examines the book: a grotesque pop-up storybook that describes what Babadook is going to do to herÉor rather, what it proposes to make her do.
Kent knows that maternal madness is a subject for prime cinematic terror, and Davis conveys that terror with a power worthy of Cate Blanchett. Either placidly succumbing to insanity with heavy eyelids and a half-smile, or roaring, caught in its vortex, the brave Davis is completely convincing. We can tell what Kent has studied, because of the TV the sleepless Amelia watches: unnerving clips from Melies to Mario Bava. But this movie isn’t derivative—it’s in good company with The Exorcist or Carrie. Kent builds the foundations well on this story, before she turns the screws; the pity we have for this lonely pair makes the coming of the Babadook all the more frightening.
R; 93 min.