Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s sensitive yet terrifying horror film The Babadook has a realistic explanation for everything that happens, right up to 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 seventh 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.
Her relationship with Samuel (the remarkable Noah Wiseman) is not quite in sync. The boy lives 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 pop-up book titled Mr. Babadook turns up on the porch, and Samuel grows obsessed over the monster in it, a top-hatted, knife-fingered boogeyman. Finally, Amelia examines the book, and learns what the Babadook is going to do to her—or 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 old film masters Georges Méliès to Mario Bava. But The Babadook isn’t derivative—it’s in good company with The Exorcist and Carrie. Kent does a good job building the foundations of this story before she turns the screws, and the pity we have for this lonely mother-and-son pair makes the coming of the Babadook all the more frightening.
‘The Babadook’ opens Friday, Dec. 12, at the Rialto Cinemas, 6868 McKinley St., Sebastopol. 707.525.4840.