If, like me, you're weary of the current round of domestic horror franchises, such as Paranormal Activity and The Conjuring, which trot out predictable spooks, scares and lazy plotting, you might find relief with this new indie Australian film from Jennifer Kent. And by "relief," I mean a thoughtful creepiness and a story that openly suggests that plenty of what we call horror is just the awfulness of life that we won't face.
Daily life is a bit of a strain for Amelia (Essie Davis): She's widowed, works in a senior-care home and is perpetually exhausted, frustrated and even angered by her hyperactive son, Sam (Noah Wiseman). Sam is needy, disruptive and prone to both flights of fancy and bouts of violence. Things go from bad to worse when Sam grows convinced that a monster known as "the babadook" is coming for them both. (The babadook is introduced in a lovely sequence in which a book of hand-cut illustrations seems to come to life.) Teetering on emotional collapse, Amelia starts to fear the babadook as well.
But the dark heart of the story isn't a top-hatted, winged monster who might or might not exist, but the destructive, co-dependent relationship between mother and son. Each loves, fears and hates the other, and as the babadook (or the fear of it) imprisons them together in a gloomy old house, increasingly horrible things manifest.
Kent has a restrained hand in the director's chair; this is a film with no silly jump-out scares and virtually no blood or gore. The pace is slower, and the vibe reminiscent of such classics as Rosemary's Baby, where the line between monster and madness remains ambiguous.
Monsters are manifestations of our fears, Babadook suggests, and what could be more terrifying to confront than the very dark places of parent-child relationships rarely acknowledged? It's a lot more unsettling than watching another spooky kid in a nightgown wall-walk or pop out of the closet.