Who brings into their home a kid’s book called ‘Mister Babadook’, crammed with drawings of scary toothy shapes peering around bedroom doors? The answer is left deliciously vague in this slow-building, expertly unnerving horror movie built around a broken Australian family.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a tired-looking carer in a nursing home and grapples with single motherhood in the wake of a car accident that killed her husband while he was driving them to the maternity ward. Samuel (Noah Wiseman), the surviving child, now six, is stuck in his shouty phase, has a hyperactive imagination and is obsessed with weapons. These are precisely the wrong people to be reading dark bedtime stories, yet mysteriously, there’s the book on the shelf.
And there goes your peaceful night’s sleep. Actress-turned-debut-feature-director Jennifer Kent has the storytelling balls to show her entire hand in the pop-up story contained in this freaky book and then make us squirm as events come true. Even more impressively, Kent doesn’t shy away from Amelia’s off-putting mental state, an internal battle between motherly love and obvious resentment. Young Sam will always remind her of her dead husband, and ‘The Babadook’ is female-centric in a way that other horror movies rarely are. It’s a tale in which the real terror might have already happened. Parents, brace yourselves.
Kent is a natural horror director. She favours crisp compositions and unfussy editing, transforming a banal house into a subtle, shadowy threat. You’re not going to be sprung out of your seat by an overzealous sound designer. By the time the beast shows up (a wild creation of puppetry, stop-motion animation and suggestive noises), it’s possible to be just as riveted by Davis’s mouse-turned-lioness performance, tearing into the register of fellow Aussie Cate Blanchett.
If Kent’s goal is to steer horror back toward a rigorous, non-digital realm for serious artists (a welcome trend also seen in last year’s ‘The Conjuring’), her work is done.