In “The Babadook,” almost-7-year-old Samuel (Noah Wiseman) pledges to protect his beleaguered mother, Amelia (Essie Davis), from “the monster,” whatever it may be. He can tell something is plaguing her — she’s exhausted, bleary-eyed, and frazzled — and he’s the sort of kid who imagines monsters under the bed anyway. When a creepy pop-up book called “Mister Babadook” appears mysteriously on his shelf, he figures its title character must be what’s pursuing his mother. “Don’t let it in!” he pleads, over and over.
But the truth is more complicated than that, and as a horror film, “The Babadook” is deeper and more existentially unsettling than the usual monster-of-the-week fare. Samuel’s father died in a car accident while driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth to him, and Amelia has yet to recover from the tragedy. Samuel, who’s prone to screaming fits and behavioral problems (he’s probably “on the spectrum,” as they say), would be a difficult child to raise under normal circumstances. His birth — his very existence — being so closely connected to the death of Amelia’s husband only makes it harder. Part of her resents her son, and she hates that part of herself for feeling that way.
Written and directed by an outstanding Australian talent named Jennifer Kent, the film strikes me as a uniquely female examination of maternal anxiety. It also strikes me as dang scary, the best thriller of the year in a walk. The Babadook, a skittering, creaking, black-clad entity, becomes a metaphor for depression, grief, the struggle of unplanned single parenthood — whatever might overtake a person and drag her into the depths, or cause a child to behave erratically. (“Will this make the Babadook go away?” Samuel asks of the sedative his mother has pled with a doctor to prescribe for him.)
As mother and son grapple with dark basements, menacing phone calls, and other unexplained phenomena, we fear for their safety and sanity, and for the safety of innocent bystanders like a kindly old neighbor (Barbara West). Gradually, a story that felt like “The Omen” at first morphs into something more akin to “The Shining.” (Fittingly, as Filmdrunk’s Vince Mancini observed, the kid even looks like Shelley Duvall.) Can the Babadook be defeated? Can it at least be controlled? When the story reaches its conclusion, don’t be surprised if you find yourself exhaling for the first time in 90 minutes and realizing, uneasily, that once you strip away the metaphors, everything that has happened here is all too plausible.
A- (1 hr., 33 min.; )