It's not that Jennifer Kent's remarkably assured first feature, “The Babadook,” reinvents the proverbial wheel -- good luck finding me a modern horror effort that does -- yet it hardly, if ever, steps wrong in its tale of a widowed mother, her only child and the distresses brought upon them by a sinister supernatural force and the daily demands of parenting alike. Kent's film doesn't just strike a spooky mood, it establishes a vital emotional core on which to unleash its gorgeously nightmarish scenario, and the result is creepy as all hell.
Left alone to raise six-year-old Sam (Noah Wiseman), nurse Amelia (Essie Davis) has trouble celebrating her son’s birthday every year, as her husband died in an accident en route to his delivery. This anniversary seems harder than ever; Sam’s overactive imagination has seen him expelled from school for wielding his own monster-defeating weapons, and a sleep-deprived Amelia’s decision to pick an unseen storybook off the shelf -- the tale of one Mister Babadook -- unwittingly places them both in harm’s way.
Expanding her 2005 short, “Monster,” to feature length, Aussie writer/director Kent does a commendable job setting up the stressful circumstances that would prove compelling enough on their own merits, having Wiseman toe the line of being too unbelievable a holy terror in his accidental mission to fray Mum’s nerves. Once they read the book, which plainly explains the torments to come in suitably eerie rhyme, we wait patiently for mother and child to come to terms with an increasingly supernatural presence and find our sympathies slowly, slyly twisted between the two chief protagonists along the way.
In terms of genre touchstones, “Babadook” leaves few unturned -- creaking doors, loosened teeth, wary pets, the seemingly indestructible artifact -- but coupling those beats with matriarchal doubts about both raising and protecting one’s kin personalizes the stakes with critical urgency, placing the story at the intersection of the psychological exhaustion of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and the classical atmosphere of “The Innocents.” Kent and director of photography Radoslaw Ladczuk expertly exploit the deepening shadows of the central home, making every corner seem more oppressive than the last and finding chilling iconography at even the literal drop of a hat.
All of the thematic and technical trappings would ring hollow if it weren’t for two instantly engaging performances: Wiseman walks a tricky line between nuisance and victim well, but the heavy lifting falls to Davis, who astounds with her evolution from doting parent to exhausted guardian to potential aggressor. With a face like Sissy Spacek in her prime and a ferocity equal to Nicole Kidman in “The Others,” her performance is an astoundingly committed one hardly ever seen in horror, and together with Kent, she makes “The Babadook” not just an impressively chilling exercise in old-school restraint and newfound lore but a welcome showcase for female filmmakers in an often male-dominated genre. May these two rattle even more nerves in the years to come.