The Babadook: Diabolical doings Down Under

If the title The Babadook sounds in any way humorous, it is completely eradicated within moments after this stylish and scary suburban scare-fest has begun. The first feature by actress-turned-writer/director Jennifer Kent is a most auspicious one, an instant cult classic that’s sure to please horror buffs and perhaps even win new converts to the genre.

Set in a contemporary Australian suburb, the film focuses on Amelia (Essie Davis) and her precocious son Samuel (Noah Wiseman in his screen debut). Amelia is a widow, her husband having perished in an auto accident driving her to the hospital to give birth, and it’s clear by her haggard demeanor that she’s still wracked with grief and guilt years later.

Amelia’s weariness is compounded by Samuel’s incessant fascination with a volume he’s discovered, called Mr. Babadook, about a malevolent boogeyman that Samuel is convinced is coming to do them harm. Amelia is, naturally, dismissive – despite her worsening nightmares and mounting depression.

With shrewd assurance, Kent meticulously tightens the screws, creating uneasiness throughout. Is the Babadook an actual supernatural entity, or is Amelia going insane? Until late in the game, it’s not entirely clear. And, then, it’s very clear.

The film offers nods to such illustrious fore-bearers as The Other (1972), The Exorcist (1973), Poltergeist (1982) and even the infamous Italian-made Rosemary’s Baby/Exorcist knock-off Beyond the Door (1975), as well as to the works of Georges Melies and Mario Bava, but The Babadook adroitly straddles the thin line between homage and rip-off and establishes its own distinct – and distinctive – identity.

Anchored by Davis’ superior performance, The Babadook saves the blood and thunder for its climax, building its intensity with mood and atmosphere. There are some elements that will be very familiar to fright fans – one look at the family dog and you know its days are numbered – but Kent doesn’t take anything for granted. To scare people, you have to work at it, and she’s done a laudable job to that end. The Babadook is sure to shiver timbers this holiday season.

The Babadook is scheduled to open Friday at Carousel Cinemas, Greensboro !

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