More moody than bloody and more unsettling than shocking, The Babadook — which has been generating loud buzz since hitting the festival circuit earlier this year — is a throwback to old-school horror filmmaking, where much of the fear comes from what’s unseen amid the dark of the basement.
But there’s more to this low-budget Australian haunted-house story and feature debut from director/writer Jennifer Kent than mere scares. It’s a smart contemporary riff on parenthood, a world in which the everyday chaos of life can be as frightening as Freddy Krueger.
Essie Davis, best known to American audiences as the clever “lady detective” in the period-piece PBS series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, is Amelia, a single mom who has found her life spiraling out of control since losing her husband in a car accident seven years earlier. That was the same day she gave birth to her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), a needy boy whose demands are all-consuming and who is increasingly exhibiting troubling and violent behavior.
Things have gotten so bad that his sister and his school both warn that he’s a danger. Amelia, feeling increasingly isolated from friends and family, is beginning to buckle under the strain.
Not helping matters is the pop-up children’s book on her shelf that she’d never noticed before, The Babadook. But it’s not just that she doesn’t know where it came from that makes it odd. As she finds out when she begins reading it to Samuel, it’s in the scary illustrations and threatening tone: “If it’s in a word, or it’s in a book, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”
Unsurprisingly, once you let the Babadook into your world, well, let’s just say he’s not there to help with babysitting and housekeeping so you can grab a latte with your girlfriends.
Whether the Babadook is really a creature from another dimension or merely a manifestation of Amelia’s deepest fears about her welling rage and despair over her son and late husband, it has entered into her and Samuel’s life with a vengeance and now they have to deal with it.
Davis, so winning as the in-control Miss Fisher, is completely believable as a woman out of her depth on the roiling sea of motherhood. And young Wiseman, at once adorable and monstrous, is equally strong.
Much credit also has to go to the cinematography and, especially, sound design, both of which help set the dark mood.
Director Kent — who first gained notice as an actress ( Babe: Pig in the City) — has made the kind of striking film that is going to have mainstream Hollywood haunting her like a Babadook in a bad mood. For the sake of her idiosyncratic vision, let’s hope she doesn’t frighten easily.
Exclusive: The Texas Theatre, Dallas; Alamo Drafthouse, Richardson; and video-on-demand
* * * * (out of five)
Director: Jennifer Kent
Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman
Running time: 93 min.