If we're honest, most of us who relish a good horror film don't actually hope to feel something like horror. The appeal is, instead, that of shock and surprise, all candied up, the crowd-pleasing bits staged with the kind of extended setup/payoff patience that the makers of comedies have long forgotten: When will the gag hit, what will it be, and how will the heroine survive it? The smartly booby-trapped stuck-in-the-basement scenes in Annabelle could be swapped with those in The Conjuring or the between-the-walls frights of The Pact — their selling point is variety and execution within a framework of comforting ritual. Indie or studio, well-acted or campy, these movies feel like good-enough beers from the same reliable brewery, fit for a pleasant buzz but nothing you have to worry might jack up your night.
Jennifer Kent's maternal nightmare The Babadook, then, is an imperial stout that will have you walking funny — and it might rip into your sleep. It's the most horror I've felt at a horror film since Neil Marshall's The Descent, one where the scares don't release the tension — they harrow. It's hard to say whether you'll enjoy this film, but it's hard not to admire and respect it, if maybe with your eyes half shut. Kent, a first-time writer-director, proves adept with the jolts and shadows the genre demands, but she also digs deeper, into the addled-brain terror of early Roman Polanski where the heroine comes unwound in her home — and the calls, as they say, might be coming from inside her own head. The setup feels closer to Jeepers Creepers than Repulsion. Youngish widow Amelia (Essie Davis) is mother to a creepy elementary-aged Samuel (Noah Wiseman) nobody wants to be friends with, as he spends lots of time nattering on about a top-hatted, hunch-shouldered soul-eater called the Babadook who plans, the kid insists, to kill him and mom both.
He gets wind of this beast from a marvelously creepy pop-up book that turns up one day in the house. An early scene of Amelia reading aloud from Mr. Babadook with increasing concern demonstrates Kent's mastery of pleasurable horror as well as the tormenting kind. The book, designed by Alex Juhasz, has the handmade look of woodcuts and Edward Gorey drawings, but damned and demented; when its paper monster leaps out at us, in time with the meter of some threatening nursery-rhyme doggerel, it trumps other movies' CGI terrors. The Babadook's toothy storybook hellmouth demands that we imagine the genuine article.
The suspense, early on, is delicious. Samuel upsets other kids with talk about the Babadook, which he seems to have seen outside the book, while Amelia tries to shake off the signs that her house has been targeted. She grows miserable and alienated, trapped in a drably colorless town with a kid who wrecks her every moment of peace. She wants scared Samuel to stop his shrieking, to stop embarrassing her everywhere. Eventually, through complications that never strain credulity, Amelia and Samuel wind up as something like shut-ins, overmedicated, hiding out from a world that Amelia feels rejects them. But we know what she doesn't: that the Babadook has seized control of her, and that through her it will feed on the boy.
Or maybe not. That delicious feel curdles to something stiff and bitter, with Kent as committed to Amelia's emotional state as she is to unsettling us. We wonder, as a cloaked Babadook appears in her bedroom, as shivery in his full stop-motion reality as he was in pen and paper: Is all this the frothing of Amelia's mind? As Amelia calls in sick to work, drugs her son, and contemplates the murder of her dog, Kent seeds our doubts: What if the heroine — the mother — the traditional "final girl" — turned out to be the monster? Kent is reclaiming/remixing the most ancient of fears and stories, mashing Medea into the Grimms into Roald Dahl into spook-show nonsense, but she always grounds it all in the knowledge that the haunted house has nothing on the haunted head.
The film's hard to shake, but it also demands a second viewing, and not just to pick out the clues about what is and isn't meant actually to have happened. Kent has layered into the drama a rich assortment of mixed-media pleasures, tributes to early film and cheeseball magic videos, glimpses of Méliès-ian tableaux. The Babadook, like that book or a stout, is a superbly made, darkly rich, small-batch treat that can change the composition of your evening — and should absolutely be kept from the kiddos.