The debut feature from Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent is a haunting tale of suburban paranoia that sticks with you after the credits roll.
The Babadook is the stuff of dark fairy tales—literally. The titular monster is introduced when the widowed Amelia (Essie Davis) and her young son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), search for some bedtime reading. Sam discovers a strange pop-up book, Mister Babadook, on his shelf. It goes from mysterious to macabre in the flip of a page. Mister Babadook is a shadowy figure with a top hat, cloak and knife-like hands that visits while you're sleeping and eats you from the inside out.
This Nosferatu-like monster can surely be classified as the stuff of horror, but the film does not fit neatly into the classification. The demonic creature is more than a source of life-threatening terror; it is a proxy for the nagging psychological issues of mother and son. Amelia and Sam's relationship teeters on the edge of love, hate and, we are gradually given to worry, maternal filicide, as paranoia over the possible infestation of the Babadook sets in. Sam begins suffering from insomnia and seeing the creature; eventually, the mother thinks that she does, too—or is it a guilt-induced fever dream?
Amelia and Sam both struggle with lingering trauma. Amelia cannot give up the ghost of her husband, who met his end in a nightmarish car accident en route to the hospital for Sam's delivery. Her grief has left her exhausted and struggling to be present for her son's emotional needs. Like any first-grader, Sam acts out in spurts of violence, with an overactive imagination that taxes Amelia's nerves. Mister Babadook serves as a catalyst that stretches the limits of tolerance between mother and son.
Sam's emotional disturbance stresses out his mother, who clearly resents her son for more than just insolent behavior and bad manners. This provides the perfect backdrop to explore whether the paranoia experienced by mother and son is real or a monster of their own making. Cast in shades of gray, with sharp camera angles worthy of a German Expressionist film, The Babadook is bleak and stark, a barren world rife with isolation.
Kent's treatment of the subject and the weird set design nod to Polanski, Lynch and the classic fright films that Amelia sees dancing across the TV screen in her own bouts of late-night insomnia. But the true scares come not from odes to the masters, but from Kent's depiction of the horrors that exist within the walls of daily domestic life. —Kathy Justice
This article appeared in print with the headline "Paranoid celluloid."