Creepy kids are a horror movie staple, whether as sinister bad seed types or innocent victims of hauntings and possessions. Samuel (Noah Wiseman), the seven-year-old boy at the center of the spooky new Australian picture The Babadook, at first seems to qualify as one of those haunted little children. He acts out, freaks out, and generally wears out his single mother Amelia (Essie Davis), still reeling from the death of Samuel’s father years earlier. Samuel has a recognizably kid-like wildness that, the movie implies, isn’t much easier to control than the demonic-possession variety.
It’s Amelia, though, who turns out to be haunted, not just by her sadness but by a children’s book called Mister Babadook, a rhyming text with black and gray pop-ups depicting a shadowy, unstoppable force. The book appears at her home without explanation, freaks out Samuel, and refuses to leave; like a slasher movie villain, it can be horribly mutilated and still turn up, ready to menace. Rather than poisoning Samuel against his mother, the book frays Amelia’s already stringy nerves with intimations of the evil she may visit upon her son. The movie eventually arrives at an allegory for children losing a parent, bit by bit, to all-consuming grief—or anything else that might consume them.
The well-made haunting-centric movies of late have tended toward a slow-burn approach: slow tracking shots that creep through halls, or fixed compositions into which a ghostly figure will slip, initially unseen by the unsuspecting humans. The Babadook, by contrast, keeps moving, with a jabbing, unsettling rhythm. Director Jennifer Kent and editor Simon Njoo cut fast and sharp, but they don’t often resort to shock cuts; the quick cuts have a relentless precision. There aren’t many big music stings, either; passages of the movie are almost score-free.
Much of the movie, especially the back half, is confined to Amelia and Samuel’s home, where the color-drained walls start to look eerily like weathered pages in the creepy book. By the time the menace flips from Samuel to Amelia, some of Amelia’s descent-into-madness business starts to grow repetitive. Kent’s film was expanded out from a short she made called Monster, and when Amelia and Samuel have their third or fourth uncomfortable confrontation, the move to feature length feels more like a stretch, even with a trim 94-minute running time. But even with the occasional trips in circles, Davis, who looks a little like mid-80s Meryl Streep, gives a raw and beautifully vanity-free performance. She brings out a sense of both grief and, crucially, accompanying exhaustion that you can picture the American version glamming away by casting a twenty-four-year-old in the Amelia role. There’s no need for a remake, of course: The Babadook is as accessible as any number of less accomplished ghost stories—and more genuinely unsettling for its portrait of parent and child locked in mutual but potentially conquerable hell.
Speaking of which: why the hell wasn’t this movie released in October? Through the bizarre horror movie caste system that dictates Australian accents as less palatable than spiritless knock-offs of past hits, it probably wasn’t ever going to get a wide U.S. release. But it could have at least tried its hand at arthouse-horror word of mouth during the spooky season. Its Thanksgiving weekend berth seems downright perverse, coming at a time when Oscar movies are expanding and mainstream audiences are filling up on 2 Horrible 2 Bosses and Madagascar Penguins Project. I suppose it’s nice to see distributors adventurous enough to try out Babadook and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night during prestige times and not October or January. But sometimes October or January could really use the help.