"The Babadook" Worth More Than A Look

To the casual eye, Australian horror pic “The Babadook” might seem pre-packaged. Canned. Stale. Its story of a widow and her behaviorally challenged 6 year-old son doesn’t smack of innovation, nor does its hook – a haunted children’s book.

But first-time writer-director Jennifer Kent does something exceptional with her grief-heavy narrative. She picks at it. Like a scab. Soon, themes of obsession and compulsion come pouring out, certain to startle anyone who’s ever been touched by mental illness. On the shoulders of some genuinely unsettling imagery, those themes raise Kent’s film above convention into rarified air – meaningful horror.

Essie Davis stars as Amelia, nurse and widowed mother to Samuel (Noah Wiseman). As the film begins, she’s lost to her nightmares, her husband’s death playing on a loop. Back in reality, her son’s emotional detachment grows, manifesting itself through increasingly unruly behavior. He marches around their shadowy two-story with an assortment of homemade dart guns, shouting his thoughts as if through an invisible megaphone. Amelia’s exasperation grows with each syllable.

One night Samuel brings his mother a blood-red pop-up book titled Mister Babadook. A menacing silhouette looms on its cover, an unspoken threat made good in the pages beneath. The book’s imagery is stunningly bleak, understandably feeding the fears of Amelia and Samuel – and, likely, moviegoers. While the book itself soon takes a backseat, its monster lurks – usually off screen but never out of mind.

Kent’s screenplay moves along briskly, aided by some classically fast-paced English editing and a gleefully macabre sense of humor. For a tale that begins not far removed from spooky children’s horror, its elegant glide into grown-up frightfest is equal parts surprising and affecting.

Unusually, act two is where Kent makes hay, colliding the worlds of childhood fears and adult paranoia into a positively nightmarish venn diagram. A scene set in a police station is so well shot and staged that neck-hairs everywhere are fated to stand at attention.

Its final half hour doesn’t live up to what came before, mostly because it can’t. Kent tries to find a happy medium between revealing too much and not revealing enough, but it feels like a letdown all the same. Only the film’s final minutes match up to the dread of its first hour. Its waning moments are a deft metaphor for the nature of mental illness, enough to keep its final act from succumbing to paint-by-numbers haunted house horror.

Author Stephen King (The Shining) and director William Friedkin (“The Exorcist”) have been vocal early adopters of “The Babadook” and it’s no wonder – the film hangs on their work like a coat on a coat hook. But it’s a hook with room enough for all, legends old and new, including the top hat of an inky-black horror icon in the making.

Obviousness of influences aside, Jennifer Kent and her cast admirably carry the torch for meaning in a genre that’s frittered away the very thing it was built on. Come for the dread, stay for the subtext, and top it all off with a little nightlight shopping on Amazon.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: November 28, 2014 (Limited, Video On Demand)
Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Jennifer Kent
Screenwriter: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West, Ben Winspear, Daniel Henshall
MPAA Rating: Not Rated