"The Babadook" is a smart, darkly drawn modern-day horror movie of monsters, memories and mothers.
For it is a mother's love on the line that heightens the provocation in this thriller set off when a children's book about the dreaded Babadook comes to life — dook, dook, dook — three bumps in the night at a time.
Written and directed by Jennifer Kent in this impressive debut, life is nightmare enough for Amelia (Essie Davis) and her young son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), without monsters in the house. At the beginning, we see Amelia lost in a bad dream — a rainy night, a car crash, a death.
That is unnerving enough. What Amelia wakes up to is the memory of her much-loved husband and a demanding son who cheerily informs anyone who asks that his father died on the day he was born. Samuel is one of those intense, interesting kids, one who tries his mother's patience even as his very presence reminds of her loss. That his seventh birthday is approaching only stirs the emotional embers.
Kent keeps the monsters and the memories of that rainy night circling each other in Amelia's mind. Meanwhile, Samuel's behavior gets worse, Amelia's psyche unravels, and just as the storybook describes, the dook, dook, dooks in the night get louder, more frightening.
The script is nimble in weaving together the psychological breakdown of a tapped-out mother and many of the tropes of horror movies: the unexplained lights that flicker off and on, the bugs suddenly pouring out of a wall, the shadowy images and muffled sounds of something scary coming. Windy days, stormy nights, the creak on a stair, the dark basement that is normally locked are all designed to increase the unease. The effects are enough to keep you wavering on the question of whether an evil supernatural Babadook is taking over or if Amelia is losing her mind.
There is much to be said about the film's mood-setting techniques, starting with the book. Designer and illustrator Alexander Juhasz created the pop-up "Babadook" storybook, making it look handcrafted and unpolished yet professional. Its ability to survive a burning and add fearsome new chapters has a chilling effect. The way shadows on the wall and sounds in the night mirror its pages are more frightening still.
The house is sparely furnished and not overly lighted but perfectly laid out for evil to lurk. Production designer Alex Holmes has done a terrific job on an indie budget to give a sense of space and entrapment. Polish director of photography Radek Ladczuk shoots the place and the people like a moving portrait — beautiful but dangerous, especially Amelia and Samuel's faces. Composer Jed Kurzel adds the right level of eerie.
At the beginning, the tension is all wrapped up in this out-of-control child. Wiseman, who was 6 when the film was shooting and is making his screen debut, is an ideal mix of wide-eyed innocence and tantrum-throwing rage. At one point, as his screeches fill the car, you may wonder how his mum has managed to go this long without strangling him.
That is the subtext running through the film — the threat of imaginary monsters and the real ones humans are capable of becoming. Mothers are expected to love their children unconditionally, but Amelia is dealing with six years of unresolved issues tied to the death of her husband and the birth of her son.
So she's already stretched and stressed when an incident at school suggests Samuel is far more troubled than anyone had imagined. But like the other traumas in her life, Amelia greets it with denial, even as she starts feeding Samuel sedatives. A series of similar behavioral incidents serves to isolate mother and son in the house, the horror ratcheting up accordingly.
Other characters move in and out of the story: Amelia's sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney); Mrs. Roach (Barbara West), a neighbor who watches Samuel and worries over Amelia; Robbie (Daniel Henshall), a co-worker at the nursing home who has a crush on her; and various doctors and child services agents.
Davis is a standout in the role, letting you both see and sense the rising tide of resentment, disorientation, fear and rage that is spilling out of Amelia. Bit by bit, sleep and sanity slip away. The Babadook is gaining, Amelia is losing, Samuel is terrified.
While "The Babadook" is well-crafted enough to satisfy the screaming-teen set, it is not catering to that crowd. Kent has given us a grown-up horror tale in the tradition of "Rosemary's Baby, "Psycho" and "The Exorcist." The film is quite serious about pushing its players and its audiences through the mental, as well as emotional, meat grinder.
Many times along the way, you fear you know where things are going. But Kent is clever in choosing unexpected spots to pull the rug out from under you.
And if you think she will tidy things up in the end, beware. Monsters like the Babadook are always lurking.
MPAA rating: Not rated
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: Cinefamily at Silent Movie Theatre, Los Angeles, and Video on Demand