(Jennifer Kent, 2014)
An instant horror classic, The Babadook has the wit to combine a beautifully arty ambiguity with some outright chills. Basically, it has its cake and eats it.
First and foremost a study of the stresses and exhaustion of parenthood, the story follows Amelia (Essie Davis, excellent), a widow with a young son who is struggling with his behavioural issues. The boy, Samuel, (Noah Wiseman) is obsessed with magic tricks, but also terrified of the monsters he believe live under his bed and inside his wardrobe. Samuel's father died in a car accident while driving Amelia to the hospital to have Samuel, and so his upcoming birthday is laced with sadness for her, still mourning her husband, and exhausted from years of dealing with her sons night terrors.
These are worsened when he presents her with a storybook about a top-hat wearing monstrous shadow called the Babadook. She dismisses his fears, but then, as Samuel's problems increase socially and in school, and Amelia sleeps less, she begins to hear strange noises, and could that be a top hat in the shadows...?
The first half of the film thickly layers atmosphere into it's wonderfully designed chief location - Amelia's house is a spookily gothic old Georgian semi, pooled with darkness at night. Even the scenes set beyond the confines of the house are claustrophobic and closed off, increasing the sense that Amelia and Samuel have nowhere to go. Kent has a fine eye for colour and composition, and there are scenes and shots here which develop with breathtaking precision from banality to creeping terror. An utterly brilliant sound design is key to that - the soundtrack often a sea of ambient sound which combine to gripping, disturbing effect as Amelia struggles to keep a grip on her sanity. The second half of the film features a shift - the horror becomes more explicit as Amelia's suffering increases and the Babdook begins to feature more heavily.
As it does so, Kent pulls off something tricky - we start to question whether it is in fact Amelia's mind that is slipping, of if there is a Babadook inside the house.
A couple of the scares are beautiful because there are no jump-tactics here; rather they are creepy and intensely frightening. Amelia answers the phone to the Babdook in the middle of the day. Amelia sees it in the living room of the old woman next door while washing up.
Kent maintains this ambiguity right up until the last scene, but neither aspect of the film suffers. It works beautifully as a study of a fracturing psyche but just as well as an elegantly designed, cracking little horror film.