Here’s a rare thing: a scary movie that is not drenched in blood. It’s labeled as a psychological horror film, and that sounds about right. It’s a throwback to the sort of thriller like The Haunting, or some of Hitchcock’s best work, where the tension builds, and there are no scenes of dismemberment or other grossness. Partly that might be because the budget was low enough to preclude a great many special effects, but mostly it was deliberate on the part of the novice Australian writer-director, Jennifer Kent. I will be looking for her next film.
It stars Essie Davis, a delightful actress we got to know through the wonderful Aussie TV show Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. Based on a book series by Kerry Greenwood, these stories feature one Phryne Fisher, a rich, beautiful, fabulously well-dressed flapper and private detective in 1928 Melbourne. She is simply gorgeous, fearless, drives a monstrous Hispano-Suiza touring car like a bat out of hell, and always carries a pearl-handled, gold-plated .38 revolver.
Few women could be much different from Phryne than Amelia in this movie. She is a harassed, insomniac single mother with a young boy you will want to murder within two minutes of seeing him. And he only gets worse as time goes by. Amelia’s husband died in a car wreck, driving her to the hospital where she bore this demon child, and she has never reconciled herself to it.
A mysterious “children’s” pop-up book appears, telling of this creature called the Babadook, which hides under the bed, in the closet, all the usual places kids are scared of. The worst possible book to show to a kid who is already obsessed with monsters. Mom quickly realizes this, but the damage is done. As for the Babadook itself, in the book … it is creepy in the extreme. If I had seen these illustrations when I was that age, it would have freaked me out. One of the best aspects of this movie. Somebody worked hard to make this scary monster.
Now the kid is totally out of control. He starts manufacturing weapons, like a launcher that can put a wicked velocity on a cricket ball. He is determined to save his mother and himself from the Babadook.
And the trouble is … he’s right. As his mother sinks further and further into a manic state, she begins to accept something she has never accepted before: She hates the little bugger. As more and more inexplicable things begin to happen, she has no idea where to turn, but starts lashing out at him …
And that’s all I should say. But you will quickly realize there are two possible things going on here. One is that there really is a Babadook, a creature that “you can’t get rid of.” Another is that Mum is going loonier than a Tasmanian devil. Or maybe even a third, that both things are true, that her insanity has brought this thing into being.
The movie never cheats you, never goes in for the cheap GOTCHA! scare. Even the ending satisfies, something that almost never happens to me in a scary movie.