Like the elaborate children’s pop-up book that conjures its eponymous bogeyman, “The Babadook” offers a wonderfully hand-crafted spin on a tale oft told, of parent and child in an old, dark house where things go bump (and scratch and growl and hover in the shadows) in the night. Steeped in references to early cinema, magic and classic fairy tales — which, at times, causes it to feel like a scary-movie version of “Hugo” — this meticulously designed and directed debut feature from writer-director Jennifer Kent (expanded from her award-winning short, “Monster”) manages to deliver real, seat-grabbing jolts while also touching on more serious themes of loss, grief and other demons that can not be so easily vanquished. Warmly received in its Sundance preem, where it was snapped up by IFC Midnight, the pic should delight genre aficionados at fests and in niche theatrical play, but may prove a touch too cerebral for “Saw” or “Paranormal Activity”-style crossover play.
The movie takes place nearly seven years after the fatal car accident that killed Oskar (Ben Winspear) as he was rushing his pregnant wife, Amelia (Essie Davis) to the delivery room. Mother and child survived the crash, and as its seventh anniversary approaches, they still live very much in the grip of that trauma. High-strung and emotionally volatile, with a penchant for building homemade weapons and acting out at school, young Samuel (Noah Wiseman) clearly longs for a father figure and feels self-imposed pressure, at age 6, to be his mother’s protector. Amelia, who makes ends meet as an elder-care nurse, can’t even bring herself to celebrate Samuel’s birthday on the actual day, and seems increasingly overwhelmed by the demands of caring for the temperamental tyke.
Then, rather mysteriously, a book appears on Samuel’s bookshelf — a children’s book, or so it seems, large in format and handsomely bound in crimson and black. The title is “Mr. Babadook,” no author credited, and it tells the story of a curious creature, squat and top-hatted with two strange spiky feet, who raps three times on your door and asks to be invited in — something, the book goes on to show, one does at one’s own risk. The drawings (designed for the film by American illustrator Alex Juhasz) are gothic in look, monochrome and sharp-edged, with three-dimensional folds that open out and levers that move back and forth. Imagine an Edward Gorey archive published by Taschen and you begin to get the idea.
The book is set aside soon enough, but the damage has been done. Soon, the sight and sounds of Mr. Babadook begin to haunt the dreams of mother and son alike — or could it be they are actually wide awake? The book is destroyed, but it comes back — in one of Kent’s great, spine-tingling inventions — with new pages presaging a very grim outcome indeed. And slowly but surely, life, which is already fairly off-kilter here, begins to imitate art. (The haunted-book concept is, at least in part, a nod to George Melies’ 1900 short “The Magic Book,” one of a half dozen films by the pioneering “cine-magician” that seem to be playing in a perpetual loop whenever Samuel turns on the TV.)
Yet, even before anyone cracks “Mr. Babadook’s” cover, “The Babadook” has the elaborately fabricated look of a giant pop-up movie, sporting the kind of intricately detailed and resolutely analog visual design one associates with the early films of Terry Gilliam or the recent ones of Wes Anderson. The characters inhabit a world that seems drained of color, with everything from clothes to walls to furniture painted in shades of gray and black, as if they, too, were in a perpetual state of mourning. That creates just the right feel of subjective reality for a movie about monsters that spring not from some far-flung demonic realm but rather from the darkness of our own subconscious. Indeed, Mr. Babadook’s closest predecessor in the canon of bigscreen bogeymen may be the murderous, “psychoplasmic” offspring of the mentally disturbed mother in Cronenberg’s “The Brood.” (Unsurprisingly, when the “monster” makes his first full-bodied appearance, it’s as a terrific piece of stop-motion animation.)
It may be impossible to make a horror movie nowadays without having at least one character, at some point, vomit up the tar-like goo that has become the standard signifier of demonic possession, but even when “The Babadook” traffics in the familiar, Kent manages to put her own signature spin on things. Like Bruno Bettelheim and Angela Carter before her, she’s fascinated by the primal pull of the fantastic, and why the classic fairy tales loom so large in our collective unconscious. But she also has a Melies-like sense of showmanship, and for all its theoretical leanings, “The Babadook” rivals the recent work of James Wan (“The Conjuring,” “Insidious”) in its ability to goose an audience with old-fashioned sound effects, shadow play and the power of suggestion.
Through it all, Kent never compromises the emotional reality of her characters or exploits their suffering for cheap shock effects. Davis, a sturdy supporting player in many Oz films and TV series best known internationally for her work in the two “Matrix” sequels, is a revelation here as the emotionally fragile widow and mother whose grief gradually decays into something more sinister and Jack Torrance-esque. In what is almost exclusively a two-hander, she’s very well matched by Wiseman, a freakishly intense child actor making a very impressive debut. Their ultimate showdown with their unwelcome visitor is harrowing and strangely moving in equal measure, as it suggests that all of us who have loved and lost may have a Babadook of our own lurking somewhere deep within.
In addition to the standout work of production designer Alex Holmes, the pic sports an ace tech package that more than belies its modest budget (reportedly $2.3 million), including Polish d.p. Radek Ladczuk’s sleek, shadowy widescreen lensing.