The Australian horror film The Babadook features one of the scariest picture books I’ve ever seen. But you don’t have to take my word for it. One reading and the characters in the film spiral down a series of increasingly destabilizing freak-outs. The book seems to haunt them, conjuring dark figures that lurk about the house going bump in the night. They were already emotional fragile before the book. The kid, whose eighth birthday is fast approaching, was born on the day his father died in a car accident on his way to the delivery room. Mother and child feel this loss. The kid believes in monsters, spends his time scaring classmates and building weapons to protect the home from invading creatures. His mother is at a loss to help him, dealing with strong depression, a mix of lingering postpartum concern and mourning the loss of her husband. And now The Babadook is here.
What makes the book so scary? For one, it just shows up on the boy’s shelf one day. His mother, a harried single mom juggling a stressful health care job and caring for her son, doesn’t recognize or remember buying or receiving it. The thing is just there. She shrugs it off and starts to read, the pages covered in thick black and gray drawings dripping with ominous lines and inky edges. “If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of…the Babadook.” A tall dark figure with hands like claws haunts a bedroom in the pictures as the rhyming lines become taunting, threatening. By the time the book is prematurely shut and bedtime declared, the rattled mother hides it and shudders. Now both mother and child harbor back-of-the-mind concerns that the Babadook will come to get them.
Here in her debut feature, writer-director Jennifer Kent builds suspense out of the time-honored horror tradition of linking a character’s psychological state with the paranormal freakiness exploding around her. Here the Babadook is less a ghoul from another dimension, more an expression of depression as a constant presence, threatening to make itself known in times of high stress. Once you get a handle on its metaphoric force, the film grows very predictable, but remains effective where it counts. There's an ill feeling in the pit of the movie for the pain it puts its characters through. Mother and child (Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman in a pair of intense, committed performances) are strained, with teachers complaining about his behavior and child protective services sniffing around. Chores are piling up, the house looking cluttered, dusty, and in disrepair. The skies seem constantly overcast, as Kent makes stark gray images out of methodically simple cinematography from Radek Ladczuk. Daily stresses are closing in.
Approaching the anniversary of a tragic death, the loss is in mind. “Will you die?” the son asks his mother. “Not for a long time,” she replies. His follow-up question: “Did you think that about dad?” There’s no good way to answer that. Later, when the two of them are cowering under the covers, the long, black shadowy being lurking through the door, across the ceiling, is the manifestation of all unanswerable questions, the deep quandaries that can keep one up at night. That’s where The Babadook succeeds, not merely in the skin-crawling book with its haunting rhymes and creepy pictures, and certainly not in its solid but standard (sometimes painfully ordinary) jump scares and creeping shots of slow burn terror, but in the anxious, depressive mood from which the darkest parts of the characters’ psychological wounds emerge.