I was an easily frightened child, and nothing scared me more than certain picture books. Something about the static images, the simple words and the unseen menaces hidden between pages made books much more sinister than, say, movies, and quite a few volumes that now seem perfectly innocuous were banished from my bedroom shelves.
I had forgotten about this youthful phobia until I saw “The Babadook,” the debut feature by Australian director Jennifer Kent. Or rather, until I came home from the screening, went to bed and woke up in the throes of the kind of nightmare that was the reason I had shunned those books in the first place.
The Babadook is a black-hatted, long-taloned, snaggletoothed figure — a sort of monochrome, pen-and-ink Freddy Krueger — who lives between the bright red covers of a story that shows up in the house of Amelia (Essie Davis) and her 6-year-old son, Sam (Noah Wiseman).
Their household is a creepy place, even before the visitor arrives. Amelia, who works in a nursing home, is a sad, frazzled woman, still reeling from the death of her husband some years earlier and increasingly distraught by Sam’s erratic behavior.
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Looking a little like a kindergartner dressed up for Halloween as AC/DC’s Angus Young, Sam swerves from cowering terror to uncontrollable rage. He causes trouble in school, attacks his cousin and turns his mother’s days and nights into a gantlet of anxiety, embarrassment and worry.
Or so it seems. The brilliance of “The Babadook,” beyond Kent’s skillful deployment of the tried-and-true visual and aural techniques of movie horror, lies in its interlocking ambiguities. For a long time, you’re not sure if the Babadook is a supernatural or a psychological phenomenon. Once you’ve started to figure that out — or to decide that you’re too freaked out for it to matter — another, more disturbing question starts to arise. Maybe the monster is all in someone’s head, but if so, whose? Sam’s? Amelia’s? Yours?
Kent twists the possible answers around, scrambling your sense of standard horror-movie rhythm. Nighttime brings the usual terrors — noises just out of frame, shadowy corridors, flickering lights — but daylight offers no particular comfort. When Amelia and Sam leave home, bad things happen, and their fear is compounded by humiliation. When they return, traumatized and tired, their unwelcome guest is lying in wait.
The world outside is a cold, grotesque place, especially when Amelia has to endure the pitying, judgmental company of her sister and other moms. Home is haunted by the memory and the apparent threat of death.
As “The Babadook” proceeds, ratcheting up both the suspense and the odd, surreal comedy that accompanies but does not diminish it, every boundary in Amelia and Sam’s world seems to collapse. When a demon runs wild, uncontained by the walls of houses or the pages of a book, its origin hardly matters. But Kent has enough of a Freudian streak to know that the familiar is scarier than the alien and that nothing is more fraught with dreadful possibility than the bond between parent and child.
That bond is also freighted with tenderness, longing, resentment and all kinds of other emotional baggage. Somehow, Kent has folded all of this into a highly effective little ghost story, one that is as simple and austere as the Babadook book itself.
The off-kilter camera angles, echoing sound effects and lurid cinematography (by Radek Ladczuk) certainly help, and so do the two lead actors. Noah Wiseman has a demonic sweetness that recalls some of the evil children of ’70s scare-cinema. And Davis’ performance is a tour de force of maternal anguish. At times, she seems as fragile and addled as Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby,” as Kent pulls Polanskian strings of helplessness and paranoia. But then all of a sudden, the mood shifts and you wonder if you should be afraid for Amelia or afraid of her.
In any case, you will be scared. And also, perhaps even more scarily, moved.
(At the Screenland Armour.)
Not rated | Time: 1:35