A mother and son have just about the worst time imaginable in the horror movie "The Babadook," easily the scariest film to come out in 2014.
Amelia (Essie Davis) lost her husband in a car crash while driving to the hospital to deliver her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). A former writer, she now works at a retirement home conducting bingo and serving tea. Amelia seems to be a nice person, but it's clear her husband's death took a toll on her, and she's road weary.
Samuel is a very bright-if somewhat mischievous-boy, doing magic tricks and making weaponry to battle the imaginary monster that lives in his closet. His behavior becomes increasingly erratic after he has his mother read him a bedtime story, a nasty little book called "Mister Babadook" that just happens to be on the shelf. Samuel becomes convinced that this is the monster living in his closet.
First time director Jennifer Kent, who also wrote the screenplay, is already a master of the total freak out. Whether it's in a nighttime bedroom, or in Amelia's car in broad daylight, the Babadook is as creepy as creepy gets when he manifests himself. We see him a little bit here and there, but mostly, we hear him. His voice is just something you won't enjoy listening to. It's something akin to that awful, crushed throat croaking from "Ju-On."
Kent gets most of her scares through the use of sound and things we aren't seeing. I'm usually more of a "Show me the monster!" kind of horror geek, but I'm totally okay with how Kent crafts this film. We do see the Babadook (including his chilling illustration in the children's book), but he's more of an off screen thumper than an on screen menace. Still, there's just enough of him to satisfy "show the goods" critics such as myself.
Davis's Amelia is either a sympathetic victim of a monstrous force, or the worst movie mother since Piper Laurie's religious fanatic in "Carrie." It all depends on how you care to take in the movie. If the Babadook is real, then Samuel's screaming tantrums are well founded, and Amelia is blameless. If the Babadook is simply Amelia's way of justifying a hatred of her misbehaving son, well, that just makes things that much scarier.
Davis gives us a portrait of a mother under extreme stress, weakened by her state of mind and perhaps unable to cope with her child. The role requires a lot of screaming, and she has a scream that goes into the Horror Movie Hall of Fame. She also has a moment where she is simply looking through a window that I truly wish I wasn't remembering right now.
Much credit goes to Wiseman, a 7-year-old kid with major chops making his screen debut. While Davis and Kent get a lot of credit for what works in the movie, this film wouldn't be half of what it is without Wiseman. He's a natural for sure, and he does "scared shitless" like a pro. He handles the more grounded scenes well too, with much of the result being utterly heartbreaking.
When things really get rolling, Kent's film has echoes of genre classics like "The Exorcist," "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Poltergeist" without being derivative. She's an extremely capable director, but I'm not sure I want her making any more horror movies, because the next one might kill me. I say this in the most complimentary way possible.
Horror fans, in case you are wondering if a Babadook book actually exists, preorders are underway at thebabadook.com. Yes, the freaky pop up book in the movie is soon to be a real thing. Give the gift of nightmare fuel this Christmas.
Starring Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall
Directed by Jennifer Kent