A mop-topped six year-old sees something in the back of his mother’s station wagon. His eyes go wild with terror and he lets out a blood-curdling scream.
It’s broad daylight. And even though we sympathize with his harassed, widowed mom when she shouts “Why can’t you just be NORMAL?”, we know there’s something there, that he’s not as cracked as he seems.
It’s “The Babadook,” and only Sam sees it. At first. This Australian horror tale is about a child under threat, with that threat seemingly coming from his increasingly unhinged mom.
Amelia (Essie Davis) still has nightmares about the drive to the hospital the night Sam (Noah Wiseman) was born — slow-motion tumbles inside the car, the husband that died in the wreck.
Almost seven years later, Sam has grown into a weird kid — assembling a stash of self-designed weapons; a crossbow that fires dartboard darts, a backpack catapult.
“I’ll SMASH the monster!” he promises. “I’ll protect you, if you protect me, Mummy!”
Sam is impressionable, prone to tantrums and risky play, dangerous to other children.
Poor Amelia, a nursing home nurse, grieves and half-heartedly tries to correct him. His school doesn’t want him. Her sister doesn’t want her little girl to be around him. And social services is dropping by, wondering what is up in their creaky two-story home.
A book Sam plucks from who-knows-where might explain his phobias. “The Babadook” is the creepiest popup book bedtime story ever. As she reads it to her hyperactive son, Amelia sees its grisly grey drawings and rhymed couplets as threatening — not just in a general sense, either. This book seems to be predicting their doom.
Writer-director Jennifer Kent keeps the camera close on Davis, capturing Amelia’s growing terror at what she hears and sees, events predicted by this awful book. And Kent lucked out in her kid-casting, with young Wiseman suggesting that least favorite, obnoxious ADHD child of a friend or relative. There’s no abrupt transition from jerk to brave little sage when it turns out his terrors are real.
Kent tosses in moments of kids being cruel to other kids — “Your dad died because he didn’t WANT to be with you!” — birthday parties, disbelieving cops, a flirtation at work and a boogeyman to die for.
All of which push the film into that “outstays its welcome” zone — too many nights and days of dealing with this threat, the menace growing more real with every horror movie Amelia flips by on TV. It’s simply not consequential enough to withstand this repetition.
But “The Babadook,” film and the book within it, still manages to pop the hairs on the back of your neck more than most repetitive, predictable and gory Hollywood horror films these days.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with bloody violence, profanity
Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman
Credits: Written and directed by Jennifer Kent. An IFC release.
Running time: 1:33
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