Amelia (Essie Davis, "The Girl with the Pearl Earring," "Australia") is at the end of her rope trying to deal with her out of control 6 year-old Samuel (Noah Wiseman). During the day, she has a stressful job working in a dementia ward. At night, her son's nightmares steal away her sleep. He's convinced there is a monster lurking that wants to eat them alive, and eventually, Amelia comes to believe him, especially after reading him a bedtime story from a book which mysteriously turns up called "The Babadook."
Writer/director Jennifer Kent has inventively developed her 2005 short "Monster" (click to watch) into a feature that is one of the most unsettling portrayals of mental illness since Lodge Kerrigan's "Clean, Shaven." Using the imagery of German Expressionism and the creepy techniques of David Lynch, Kent has created a psychological horror which gradually shifts the ground beneath our feet. But once we've figured out what's what, the film loses some of its momentum. Still, this is a unique take on an intriguing premise.
The film begins with a storybook, 'The Three Little Pigs,' but there's more than a wolf waiting to blow someone's house down. Amelia's obviously depressed and anxiety-stricken and her son's upcoming birthday is looming. He's quite the handful, unfiltered (he informs playmate Ruby (Chloe Hurn) that his dad was killed in an accident taking his mother to the hospital for him to be born) and energetic. Amelia can't even get peace at work, getting a phone call that Samuel's brought a dart gun to school. But after reading 'The Babadook,' at least until the point where she realizes this isn't an appropriate bedtime story, Amelia begins to wonder if Samuel's terrors are real. She finds broken glass in her soup. She sees a figure like the one on the book cover looming behind her neighbor Gracie Roach (Barbara West) as she washes dishes. When she gets an eerie phone call, she goes to the police, but even there things seem sinister. And when she tries to destroy the book, it pops right back on her doorstep.
What may be even worse is that the people around her begin to treat Amelia warily. Claire (Hayley McElhinney) informs her that she's ditching their usual shared kids' birthday party this year because Ruby wants a princess party, an obvious exclusionary tactic (it doesn't work and Claire's suspicions prove grounded). Both Mrs. Roach and coworker Robbie (Daniel Henshall, "The Snowtown Murders") express concern, but Amelia cannot get the help she needs, except from the disapproving doctor who provides her with medication to keep Sam asleep at night (a fact he spews at the worst possible moment).
Kent uses space and sound and shadow to create unease. Music stops for emphasis. Objects associated with Samuel are repurposed for creep factor (and young Noah Wiseman is directed to disquieting effect). There's one place I wish Kent hadn't gone, an innocent betrayed, then forgotten, but her final showdown is something else again, a straight-jacketed birth, a painful release.
Robin gives "The Babadook" a B-.
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