In only her first feature, writer-director Jennifer Kent shows a scary assurance and maturity in plunging headfirst into the chaotic realm of psychological hysteria with The Babadook. Inspired by her short film, Monster, this particular Australian surprise not only stands out in a year full of underwhelming genre offerings, but offers proof that precision and patience can go a long way in elevating even the most potentially familiar of horror yarns. At its center — and fully embodying the film’s themes of motherhood, anxiety, and trauma via tragedy — is Amelia, an orderly who’s given convincing life by actress Essie Davis. In keeping with the film’s general sense of insistent urgency, Kent wastes little time establishing both a doom-laden atmosphere and high emotional stakes. As The Babadook opens, we’re thrust into Amelia’s troubled psyche as she floats in a dreamlike flattened pose above her bed reflecting back on her husband’s tragic death which occurred when he was rushing her to the hospital to give birth to their child. She’s then awoken by her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), now seven, who hardly sleeps at night anymore and is preoccupied with an imaginary monster, which he has built elaborate weapons to fight against. Amelia’s exhausted emotional state is evident from the get-go and is further put to the test when Sam’s imagined monster seems to have manifested itself through a mysterious pop-up book titled Mister Babadook. Sam’s erratic and aggressive behavior only intensifies and soon enough Amelia becomes less skeptical of the supernatural force stalking around her house.
what makes The Babadook so gloriously watchable and frightening is its confident technique
These early scenes of mother-son friction are skillfully staged as Amelia’s brief but intense moments of bliss are sabotaged by Sam’s antics and the presence of something truly sinister: a stop-motion rendered demon-voiced monster dressed in black looking to possess her. Some may find Kent’s script a bit too heavy-handed with its subtext, with the monster too-obviously standing in for Amelia’s leftover grief and resentment. Thankfully, this is one of the film’s few missteps in light of how much Kent gets right in her first feature. Beyond its exploration of maternal tension, what makes The Babadook so gloriously watchable and frightening is its confident technique: the economical cuts and evocative compositions, and how Kent is able to freeze one’s blood cold without resorting to the kind of cheap jump-scares more often seen in haunted-house pictures of this type. When Kent isn’t offering up a panoply of surprise sequences and inserts (a deep bag of tricks that pays homage to Georges Méliès and an assortment of others), the film rests on the burdened and tortured shoulders of its fabulous lead, Essie Davis, who turns in one of the best female performances of the year. Her alarming rage has true staying power and demolishes anything in its path — even the Babadook. In the end, the most frightening thing about the film is realizing that Kent can only get better from here.