Broken shards of glass fly into Amelia's face as her body spins into orbit. Seconds later, her crashing car slides to a halt. She looks over at her injured husband in the driver's seat while oncoming headlights approach. Right before impact, she begins falling again from her metal-encased tomb slowly toward a comfortable bed. The sound of a child's screams can barely be heard as she descends, growing louder until her eyes violently open. Panicked 6-year-old Samuel has just seen a monster under his bed and needs his mother's protection. It seems nightmares run in the family.
So begins The Babadook, a brilliant Australian horror film that marks the staggeringly assured debut of Jennifer Kent, a writer and director keenly interested in how themes of trauma and loneliness fester within the daily routines of parenting. Repetitive activities, duties and reactions dominate the opening act, all of which revolve around the behavioral problems that Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is having at home and school. Every day feels like its own nail in the coffin, and Amelia (Essie Davis) is starting to break down. Asked by a caring neighbor about her state of mind, she responds, "Nothing five years of sleep won't fix."
But exhaustion is just a symptom of her immediate family's isolation. Mother and son are each other's keepers; Amelia's husband was killed the day she gave birth, and what family they have walks on eggshells and keeps a distance due to Amelia's permanent malaise and Samuel's piercing outbursts. This alienation provides the perfect breeding ground for madness and supernatural possibility. When Samuel finds a mysterious pop-up children's book on his shelf titled Mister Babadook, its gothic expressionist content begins to manifest in their everyday lives. The opening sentence confirms what's to come: "If it's in a word or in a look, you can't get rid of the Babadook."
At first, the monster remains unseen, compartmentalized by Samuel's rapid-fire imagination. "It wants to scare you first, then you'll see it," he screams. Amelia shrugs off her son's warning, but she eventually begins to see a gangly top-hat wearing demon with sharp knives for fingers. The practical design feels influenced by the great ghouls of silent cinema (surrealist flashes of Melies' A Trip to the Moon invade Amelia's brain), angular and maniacal to maximize dread. Yet much of the film's terror stems from how Kent handles intense sequences, often playing with directionality through layered sound design before reaching a sudden visceral payoff.
The Babadook's immaculate craft would be enough to warrant its place as one of the best horror films in years, but elevating it even more are the two lead performances. Davis balances patience, frustration and anguish all at once, masking repressed feelings of guilt and rage that have taken root since her husband's death. As Samuel, a character that could have easily been one-note or obnoxious, Wiseman captures the volatility and desperation of a vibrant young boy being ripped apart by his own family tree.
Kent returns to imagery of rot and collapse as a way of complementing these performances. A cockroach infestation steadily streams from a hole in the kitchen. Amelia's bowl of porridge contains a sharp surprise. The basement becomes home base for all of the horrific subtext that has taken hold of their abode. Like the best films of Joe Dante, The Babadook, which opens Friday, Dec. 19, at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park, positions the home as a place suitable for hiding past traumas, destabilizing it as a refuge from fear. Every corner of Amelia's two-story house turns into a battleground for sanity during the film's goose-bump-inducing finale.
Ultimately, The Babadook suggests that our internal horrors can never truly be erased, only contained. Learning to respect the inspiration of those shadowy creatures in our midst allows sunny days to come again.