An often-effective, surpringly rare horror movie tactic is to take an everyday situation that’s easy to relate to and to ramp it up to the point of insanity. Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent’s assured first feature is about that kid everyone knows (or has been), the one who’s so afraid of the bogeyman — or whatever imaginary terror haunts his nights — that he completely disrupts his parents’ life and his own.
Young Noah Wiseman is a force of nature as Sam, at once the most vulnerable and most irritating child imaginable, infecting his worn-down mother (Essie Davis) with sleeplessness (at one point, he crawls into her bed while she’s using her vibrator), having a screaming tantrum in the car while kicking the back of her seat, and in trouble for bringing homemade monster-fighting weapons to school. The backstory — Amelia’s husband died in a car crash driving her to the hospital to have their son — is poignant and the portrait of mother and son locked in a single, escalating fantasy is gripping and horribly credible. The home stretch, which hints at the origins of the monster, is suspenseful and unexpected.
At first, we’re trapped in a house with a kid who is relentless in his fantasy — to the point where his mother suspects he’s manufacturing evidence of Babadook activity, like broken glass in the soup. Then, the film enters deeply into Amelia’s troubled mindscape as The Babadook, which has promised to kill her son by possessing her to do the deed, takes over, and Sam has cause to be genuinely terrified. In films like The Amityville Horror and The Shining, fathers are influenced by the supernatural to become menaces to their children, but this is a rare instance of the syndrome affecting a mother. Davis is startling as the drained mum, struggling to deal with a child who always says and does the wrong thing at the wrong time — complaining about the drugs he’s been given to make him sleep while the social services are making a call.
The Babadook shares some traits with contemporary ghost stories like Oculus, Mama or Insidious but with a stronger character basis. It’s genuinely scary in its jump moments, but also imparts a lingering sense of dread that will stay with you for days — and will definitely come to mind the next time you wake up in the middle of the night wondering what that scratching noise was. Its expressionist style means it’s not easily reduced to a simple story of a psychological delusion — there is a real monster, though ambiguity as to its nature is carried right through to the disturbing finish.
The deceptive, vicious, odd pop-up book which turns up in the home with no real explanation and triggers the crisis is brilliantly designed, and unsettling. The Seussish-with-a-nightmare-edge illustrations are deftly horrid, precisely not suitable for impressionable kids, but still present a memorable, almost cute logo. The Babadook manifests in various forms — at one point, popping up on late-night television in the middle of a Georges Méliès film — strutting and baring teeth like a hideous mix of Struwwelpeter, Nosferatu, Willy Wonka, Freddy Krueger and the Child Catcher.