Horror films work best when they reflect the mundane through a looking glass darkly. The Babadook, a finely honed and nerve-wracking movie from Australian director, focuses its looking glass on a hallowed fixture of domestic life: the relationship between mother and child. We meet Amelia (Essie Davis), a young widow who is still grieving the death of her husband several years past. Her grief is made even more excruciating by the circumstances of his death, which I won’t detail here because it’s a crucial plot element. She does her best to care for Samuel (Noah Wiseman), her young and rather high-strung son, but a toxic combination of resentment and loss have placed her on the knife’s edge of a nervous breakdown.
One night, Samuel asks his mother to read to him from a mysterious storybook that he found on his shelf. The book depicts, through a series of pop-up images, a menacing character named Mr. Babadook. Babadook’s likes include top hats, hanging from the ceiling, and driving people to commit murder and suicide.
Amelia quickly decides that this is not appropriate reading material for a 7-year-old, but the damage is already done. Samuel soon begins hearing voices and, in one particularly harrowing scene, has a full-blown meltdown brought on by visions of the Babadook. And then Amelia begins seeing a cloaked figure creep into her bedroom at night. Before long, they are both trapped in their dimly lit home by their own fear and insomnia as the Babadook lurks in the shadows.
For a debut feature, The Babadook is remarkably self-assured. Kent doesn’t introduce any extraneous details or waste time establishing the story. She has created a sleek cinematic engine emitting a disquieting thrum that grows steadily louder. It’s one of the best movies of the year and I’m expecting great things to come from Ms. Kent. The movie is playing in only a handful of theaters, but is readily available on iTunes and Amazon.