The Babadook review – a superbly acted, chilling Freudian thriller | Peter Bradshaw

Director Jennifer Kent exerts masterly control over this tense supernatural tale about a children’s book that one single mother should never have opened

Jennifer Kent: ‘I wanted to talk about the need to face darkness in ourselves’
Why The Babadook is the film you should watch this week – video review
Haunted heroines: women are taking the lead in horror films

Jennifer Kent’s clever, nasty, clammily claustrophobic chiller about a mother and child brought back a strange episode in my own parenting career. I was reading aloud to my son from a book that I didn’t know anything about, and neither did he. As the pages turned, the prose got weirdly darker, more disconcerting and more age-inappropriate. My son had reposed an unhesitating, childlike trust in the story, and I – the supposed adult – had reposed precisely the same childlike trust in a book about which I knew nothing. If I stammered, or faltered, he would sense that something was wrong, and that the book was actually far more interesting that he had suspected. Eventually, I asked if he wouldn’t rather play Plants vs Zombies on my iPad instead.

For the life of me, I can’t remember what that book was, but the episode was strange. In this movie, a stressed single mother, Amelia (Essie Davis), is going to read aloud to her boy, Samuel (played by a troublingly brilliant newcomer Noah Wiseman). She is a widow: her husband was killed in a car crash taking her to hospital to have the baby who has now grown into this precocious, disturbed, difficult child. From nowhere, Samuel has discovered an odd book in his bedroom – called The Babadook, an odd title, perhaps baby-talk for baby’s book, or mama’s book? It’s a creepy pop-up volume about a creature called the Babadook: a top-hatted, expressionist-looking shadow who comes into your house, and scares you. Far too late, Amelia realises that this isn’t a nice book, and in reading it aloud, they are going to make it come true.

The Babadook is partly a psychological thriller in the style of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion or The Tenant, a Freudian study of Amelia and Samuel’s joint dysfunction and joint breakdown. In one sense, the book triggers their collapse, and is a symbol of Amelia’s depression. With its top hat and cloak, the Babadook looks like the magician’s outfit that Samuel likes to wear – he shows great talent for magic, and his fanatical need to impress and unnerve his mother with his tricks is becoming disturbing: already he is in constant trouble at school.

Kent shows that as Samuel gets older, he starts to intuit ever more clearly his father’s absence and his own quasi-conjugal relationship with his mother. He is always clambering over her and heedlessly touching her in ways he doesn’t understand. When desperately lonely Amelia is masturbating in bed one night, her moaning inevitably wakes Samuel and the resulting scene is almost unwatchable. In a sense, it is Samuel who is the invader, the vessel of agonised memories and warped needs, and the two have jointly projected this ordeal into the Babadook: a creature of their own making. But, of course, it is also a supernatural phenomenon that cannot be explained away.

The Babadook is superbly acted. Davis really does look like a sensitive, loving person at the end of her tether, whose emotions have been turned upside down by lack of sleep, and pale, gaunt, goggle-eyed Noah Wiseman convincingly combines being frightened and frightening. He looks weirdly like the young Amish boy played by Lukas Haas in Peter Weir’s 80s thriller Witness: he is permanently, secretly aghast at what he is experiencing. There are times when the pair almost fuse into one traumatised entity. Amelia can hardly assert her authority to get Samuel to take sedatives: “I am the parent and you are the child, so take the pill!” In another scene, Samuel sleepwalks over to Amelia and tells her to “wake up”. “But you’re the one who’s asleep,” Amelia replies, wonderingly.

Kent exerts a masterly control over this tense situation and the sound design is terrifically good: creating a haunted, insidiously whispery intimacy that never relies on sudden volume hikes for the scares. And the movie cleverly riffs on the surrogate parenting being provided, almost primitively, by children’s books or fairy tales or stories. Even the sweetest of them – especially the sweetest of them – look threatening and bizarre, and there is something strange about inviting these sinister creatures into your homes and into your children’s heads for the purposes of distraction and escapism. Books demand participatory complicity in a way that TV doesn’t, and like vampires, the monsters and giants of children’s stories cannot enter without being invited over the threshold. The Babadook leaves behind it a satisfyingly toxic residue of fear.

Jennifer Kent: ‘I wanted to talk about the need to face darkness in ourselves’
Why The Babadook is the film you should watch this week – video review
Haunted heroines: women are taking the lead in horror films

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Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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