The Babadook ✮✮✮1/2
by Glenn Lovell
Freud got it right. So did Roald Dahl and Maurice Sendak, those patron saints of traumatized children.
The truth of the matter: there is nothing more frightening to kids than Mommy and Daddy; they’re the real monsters hiding beneath the bed, glaring from the dark recesses of the closet. They wield the power to disappoint, disrupt … and, scariest of all, abandon.
Australia’s Jennifer Kent is only too aware of this. As displayed with remarkable dexterity in her debut feature, “The Babadook,” the actress-turned-director is an expert on all things that go bump in the night. I’d have to reach way, way back to Val Lewton’s “Curse of the Cat People” (1944) and Jack Clayton’s “The Innocents” (1961) to come up with a more disturbing look at prepubescent angst.
Kent’s title refers to a grim children’s pop-up book. The Babadook, it seems, is the Down Under version of the Boogeyman. He sports the top hat and cape of a magician, his fingers are long and spindly, like Max Schreck’s in “Nosferatu.”
According to this bedtime story, said specter announces his arrival with a rumbling sound followed by three sharp knocks ‒ Dook! Dook! Dook!
The picture book has somehow found its way into the nondescript suburban home of a thirtysomething mother named Amelia (Essie Davis) and her troubled six-year-old, Samuel (a heartbreakingly vulnerable Noah Wiseman). Both are plagued by nightmares, the mother’s stemming from the ride to the hospital to deliver Samuel. En route, their car was broadsided and Samuel’s father was killed.
And from this morbid twist of fate blooms a funereal bouquet ‒ with sprigs of guilt, resentment … and perhaps even lingering hatred.
Though full of the mandatory horror-movie conventions ‒ including off-limits cellar and loudly creaking doors ‒ “The Babadook” is far and away the best fright film since “The Conjuring” and, before that, the original “Candyman.” Indeed, the incantation that’s supposed to conjure the dark visitor sounds a lot like the one used in the Clive Barker adaptation: “Candyman … Candyman … Candyman …”
Like Lewton’s “Curse of the Cat People,” Kent’s shocker plays the Does-it-or-doesn’t-it-exist? game. Is the Babadook a figment of Samuel’s precocious concerns or is it a mother’s way of getting back at a child who, indirectly, is responsible for her loneliness/sexual frustration? Not since Jack Torrence lost it in the Overlook Hotel has a parent become so resoundingly unhinged. The stressed-out and increasingly paranoid Amelia, exceedingly well-played by Davis, at first lashes out at the school principal, then her sister, then Samuel, who, it’s obvious, has serious behavioral issues. The book may be Mother’s way of warning, “Ready or not, I’m coming to get you!”
An obvious student of the genre, Kent quotes several fright classics, filmic and literary, including “The Three Little Pigs,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “The Shining,” and the deliciously sinister “Drop of Water” segment of Mario Bava’s “Black Sabbath” anthology. Years from now, the new horror sensation will quote this minor masterpiece of the macabre ‒ it’s that good.
THE BABADOOK ✮✮✮1/2 With Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman. Directed, written by Jennifer Kent. 93 min. Unrated (but could be R for profanity, violence, sexual situations)