Late last year, director William Friedkin drummed up publicity for first-time feature filmmaker Jennifer Kent's The Babadook, comparing it to high classics of the horror genre such as Psycho, Alien and Diabolique. "I've never seen a film more terrifying than The Babadook," he wrote. "It will scare the hell out of you as it did me." This, from the guy who directed The Exorcist.
Like The Exorcist, The Babadook wrings terror from anxieties surrounding a single mother's relationship with her child. Anchoring the picture is Australian stage actress Essie Davis as Amelia, a woman raising rambunctious six-year-old Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Samuel is tortured by nightmares and waking dreams of monsters. He spends his time building slingshots and other ad hoc weaponry, practising magic tricks and getting booted from elementary schools for scaring the other kids.
Amelia's stresses are compounded by the fact that Samuel's birthday – which coincides with the death of Amelia's husband, who died driving her to the hospital to give birth – is quickly approaching. The self-recrimination she suffers over essentially substituting her husband for her son is complicated by what an unholy terror Sam is. "I can't stand being around your son," grumbles Amelia's fed-up sister (Hayley McElhinney). "And you can't stand being around him yourself."
But Sammy's unruliness and incessantly piercing wails of "Mom! Mommy! MAUUUGHMMM!!!" are nothing compared to the horrors in store. One night, Amelia tries to put Sam to sleep by reading him a mysterious, oversized pop-up book she finds tucked atop a wardrobe. The book tells the story of Mister Babadook, a top-hatted monster who tears children to shreds. Naturally, Sam is inconsolable, and becomes obsessed with protecting himself – and his mother – from the imminent threat of the Babadook. Amelia becomes similarly consumed, destroying the troublesome book only to find it turning up again and again, including revised sections with more ghastliness (like a depiction of a mother slitting her own throat). Soon Amelia and Sam's suburban home is suffused with dread and paranoia, as the pounding voice of Mister Babadook takes up residence in the closets, the walls and the chambers of Amelia's own troubled mind.
Like all good ghost stories, the haunting in The Babadook works as a stand-in for a deeper-rooted disquiet. Houses are not made haunted. They become haunted, if not by some structuring trauma then by the inability to properly manage the fallout of that trauma. In The Babadook, Amelia's guilt (for surviving the accident that killed her husband and for her own antipathy toward her son) gurgles back to the surface in two forms. First is her deteriorating mental state. And the second is Mister Babadook.
By twinning the arrival of a persecuting demon with Amelia's spiral into psychosis, Kent plays with a classic trope of so-called "fantastic" fiction, with its tension between "is it real?" or "is it in her head?" What distinguishes The Babadook from more classical ghost stories is that both things are true simultaneously. As in Stanley Kubrick's domestic-tragedy/ghost story The Shining, the ghosts are as real as the main character's apparent insanity. The line between terrifying reality and terrifying fantasy isn't so much blurred as altogether obliterated.
No doubt, Kent's film is a terrific accomplishment. And just about as scary as William Friedkin would have you believe. But The Babadook is too deliberately calibrated to prove truly terrifying. Kent rigs together a bundle of ideas from gothic fiction and horror cinema into a well-oiled Rube Goldberg machine of dread that functions a little too neatly, especially in its left-field ending which trades uneasy catharsis for out-and-out cuteness. There's no dangling, irreconcilable remainder in The Babadook. There's nothing left to linger – no persisting bogeyman rattling around in the closets of the viewer's mind.