The Babadook, the debut feature film of Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent, works every trick in the horror film playbook. It’s got the oddball, screeching, hellish kid. A distraught, isolated, off-putting mother. A shadowy, mysterious house. A strange book that arrives out of nowhere. Weird noises in the walls, basement and attic. Something wicked in a big wardrobe cabinet. Flickering lights. Doors opening and shutting on their own. A spooked pet.
Somehow, Kent takes these tried and true tropes, whacks them on the nose, and conjures something surprisingly eerie, Freudian and jittery. Essie Davis (exceptionally good) plays sad-eyed, widowed Amelia who works in a home for the elderly and does her best to raise her troubled, high-strung young son Sam (Noah Wiseman, also exceptional). Sam, in trouble in school, shunned by schoolmates and feared by his bratty cousin, is obsessed with fears that a monster is about to invade his and his mother’s home and leave him an orphan. He’s almost right. Things become ominous with the unexplained appearance of an eerie children’s illustrated book called Mister Babadook (gorgeously designed by Alex Juhasz) which, as Amelia shows its troubling images and reads its dark rhymes to her son, burrows deeply under her skin and sends Sam into hysterics.
The tripwire dynamics of the mother-son relationship — overlaid with grief, loss, resentment, anger — fuels every goosebump, laugh, and scare that comes after. Trust us, the shapes that emerge from dimly-lit corners, the eccentric weirdness of use of space and light, the design of the eponymous creature, and the depiction of the harrowing disintegration of personalities is smart and sure-footed. Without spoiling the surprises, let’s just say that writer-director Kent has her influences down pat and her film jangles with references to big gorilla horror classics like The Innocents, The Haunting, Carrie, Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion.
Sure, some of The Babadook gets silly and overwrought. But it’s also a movie that swings for the fences and knows when to be subtle. By any standard, it’s a solid movie debut for Kent and a sweet ride for thrill-seekers. ***