About halfway through “The Babadook” I was feeling a real sense of irritation, what with all the hollering and the screeching and the screaming and the loud bumping noises and the crying and the wailing.
It kept going, and I kept watching — and it started to sink in: I wasn’t really irritated so much as creeped out. This film was getting under my skin.
“The Babadook” is the feature debut from Australian director Jennifer Kent, and it is made with such style and such originality, Kent will no doubt be given the opportunity to direct many more films, with much larger budgets.
This is the scariest movie of the year. In fact, as someone who has developed a pretty thick Critic’s Shield from years of watching standard haunted house/possessed human/mythological-creature fare, I have to say I was genuinely freaked out by some of the passages in “The Badabook.”
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widower who works in a depressing nursing home and lives in a ramshackle house with her 6-year-old son, Sam (Noah Wiseman).
The boy is a precocious and clingy little bugger — prone to hugging Mommy too tightly at children’s birthday parties; terrorizing other children with scary stories and sometimes with physical aggression, and violent mood swings. Damien from “The Omen” wouldn’t want a play date with this lad.
One night Sam finds an oversized storybook titled “The Babadook” in the house, and he insists Mommy read it to him.
Big mistake. Huge.
Illustrated in ominous tones of black and white, with just a line or two of on each page, the pop-up book tells the tale of a monstrous, shadowy, top hat-wearing creature with skull-like features and long talons.
“If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook,” we’re told, and with each turn of the page, Amelia is increasingly disturbed, while Sam seems ever more intrigued. Amelia stops reading and places the book high atop an armoire and out of sight, but Sam is already obsessed with the Babadook. The next day and every day thereafter, he’ll tell anyone he encounters about the Babadook. (Just as the book prophesized — once you’re aware of this thing, he will immerse himself in every fiber of your being.)
So here we are. A single mother still haunted by the tragic death of her husband on the day her son was born. A child whose “acting out” has reached the stage where his aunt says she won’t come to the house anymore because she can’t stand being around her own nephew. And a mysterious creature that lives in the shadows of the house — or maybe only in the psyche of the mother. Or the son. Or both. You could wear out a therapist’s couch with all the psychological undertones.
Amelia finds shards of glass in her soup, but not in Sam’s. She destroys the book — but apparently the book can’t be destroyed. She goes to the police, convinced someone is stalking and terrorizing her, but of course they don’t believe her. The moment Amelia looks around the police station, feeling the stare of every cop in the room, is one of countless, perfectly framed shots by Kent. Everything from a visit to the police station to a drive down a quiet residential street to a little girl’s birthday party is fraught with tension. Something always feels just a little … off.
As for the usual scary movie questions — e.g., why don’t they just leave the house — suffice to say Kent has an answer at every turn. “The Babadook” is the kind of next-level horror movie where just because it’s daylight, that doesn’t mean the scary stuff ends and all is well until the sun goes down again.
Essie Davis is a blood-sweat-and-tears tour de force as Amelia, who at times seems like the most loving mother in the world and at other times would send the possessed Regan from “The Exorcist” running to her room crying. Noah Wiseman’s performance as a disturbed child obsessed with Mister Babadook and with protecting his mother is so good it’s unsettling.
For a long time it’s unclear whether Mister Babadook is a real monster or the figment of someone’s damaged psyche. The answer comes in an extended climax both horrifying and emotionally involving.
Even the obligatory epilogue in “The Babadook” is fresh.
And really messed up.
I hope nobody leaves that storybook on my shelf.
IFC Midnight presents a film written and directed by Jennifer Kent. Running time: 94 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.