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With: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinney, Barbara West, Ben Winspear
Written by: Jennifer Kent
Directed by: Jennifer Kent
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 93
Date: 12/12/2014

The Babadook (2014)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Spell Binding

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Horror movies very often forget what they want to be about. Too many of them are made for a quick opening-weekend cash-in. They borrow the same scares from each other, such as the ghost that suddenly charges at the camera, or the ghost that suddenly opens its mouth at the camera, or the ghost that stands with its back to the camera and then suddenly turns around. Now, here is a movie, The Babadook, that is scary and dramatic, and seems rooted in something deceptively ordinary, and yet profound and heartbreaking.

It begins with a single mother, Amelia (Essie Davis), and her six year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), both seemingly unable to get into a normal groove after the death of Samuel's father on the day of his birth. Samuel is difficult, prone to tantrums and destructive behavior, and he pushes Amelia to the limit, especially at night, when she barely gets any sleep. He believes in monsters already, and things get worse when he finds a new book on his shelf, "Mister Babadook," which sets off a whole new level of terror in his bedroom.

The pop-up book starts innocently enough on page one but seems to get scarier as it goes, more and more threatening. Scary things begin happening in real life. Amelia tries to destroy the book, but it keeps re-appearing, with new pages added. Before long, Amelia begins seeing things too, and begins behaving strangely. Things start to look bad. The book has been right about everything so far, and it warns: "You can't get rid of the Babadook." (By the way, in case you hadn't figured it out already, "babadook" is an anagram for "a bad book.")

The truly terrifying thing here is that, although Amelia and Samuel are mostly alone in their nightmare, they are not particularly on the same side. They seem constantly at odds. At first, Amelia doesn't believe Samuel, and reacts to his fear with anger. When the Babadook begins appearing to her, it turns her into a homicidal maniac bent on slicing up the boy.

It seems to me that the movie is really about the fear inherent in a parent-child relationship. When a child is first born, it can be a terrifying prospect for a parent, made easier by the fact that you have a partner. But if you're suddenly alone, it can be overwhelming. It's a full-time job, and that includes sleeping time. You may never feel like you'll be able to sleep again, and that feeling can induce panic and despair. Amelia lays awake, watching TV, and monstrous images (including some old Méliès films) jump out at her. She even feeds her son some strong sleeping pills so that SHE can get some sleep.

As for Samuel, he seems resourceful, and even builds weapons to fight intruding monsters. He never quite seems fazed, as if he has long ago accepted the role of the man of the house. Ironically, this, also, could cause more weird, off-kilter feelings in a mother. But in reality, he's just a little kid, and in the moments that this fact suddenly comes out, it's genuinely heartbreaking. Indeed, the Babadook itself is not much more than a catalyst that sets into motion feelings that already existed in the house.

The Babadook is the feature directing debut of Australian Jennifer Kent, who, among other credits, has a small part in the great, dark children's film Babe: Pig in the City (1998). Kent has an exquisite sense of rhythm, using her clever setups and sharp cuts to further establish the sleepless, dull panic of the story. She never resorts to any of the typical recycled movie scares; everything she tries here is rooted in the characters.

This is an amazing movie, and not just because it has refreshed a genre that so quickly grows stale, and not just in comparison to some of the duller, more routine horror films out there, but because it's so purely genuine and risky. Kent has taken some of our most unspoken, innermost fears and made them palpable. Her movie is, so to speak, an open book.

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