Amelia's (Essie Davis) son is killing her.
But it's not his fault. Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is an expressive, odd little 7-year-old with round eyes and a gaping mouth, like a child's drawing of a face brought to life. He has, as his teachers call it, "significant behavioral problems," but they're of the sort that could just as easily be chalked up to rowdiness and a runaway imagination, rather than a more troubling problem. He likes magic tricks and builds homemade crossbows and catapults that get him kicked out of school. But for Sam, it's all about killing the monsters in the fairy tales he's read, all to protect his mom. Thoughts of those monsters, however, also keep him up at night, and he wakes up bellowing for Amelia, crawling into her bed and clinging until she peels his limbs away in order to get some space.
Amelia is a widow who works at a nursing home and is visibly struggling to hold her and Sam's life together at the start of The Babadook, an ingenious, moving, and fantastically creepy new Australian horror film that opens in New York and is available On Demand on Nov. 28. The movie is the feature debut from actress-turned-writer/director Jennifer Kent, and there's a distinctively female touch to the ways in which the story is a sort of waking nightmare before anything supernatural shows up. Amelia loves Sam, but raising him alone and trying to curb his behavior is eating away at her every resource. He's draining and suffocating her, and the more he acts out, the more those whom she depends on for help, like Sam's school or her sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney), pull away, leaving her exhausted and isolated.
One night, Sam pulls a red book Amelia's never seen before from the shelf, and they end up reading through a hair-raising pop-up tale about a creature called "Mister Babadook," a black-and-white figure in a top hat about whom the text warns, "See him in your room at night and you won't sleep a wink." It sends Sam into a fit of terrified sobbing, and after that, to Amelia's distress and frustration, he's sure the Babadook is haunting them. And yes, some strange things have been happening around the house, a blue and gray space full of dark corners that no lamp can ever seem to brighten. But aren't they just more signs of Sam's difficult behavior?
The Babadook, which was partially funded through Kickstarter, amps up the frightening events in some ingeniously lo-fi ways — like the reappearance of the book after Amelia repeatedly tries to get rid of it, or the barely discernible shapes that lurk in the shadows of the characters' bedrooms at night. The two lead performances are the film's most special effect, with Wiseman always toggling between adorable and awful in completely believable ways, and Davis slowly falling apart on screen, gradually losing the ability to fake a plastered smile and hold up a presentable front to the outside world, even when social services comes calling.
Kent drops us into Amelia's disintegrating mindset, showing how little sleep she's able to get between Sam's nighttime fears and her own worries. Eventually, she starts having her own night terrors as the idea that there might be someone or something malicious stalking them works itself into her brain. The camera looms up behind her or hides under the covers with her and Sam when neither can bear to check what might be above them. The hours melt away in sped-up montages when Amelia does finally get to sleep, so that she's always running late or having trouble dragging herself out of bed with the alarm.
The Babadook leaves a lot of the question as to how much of what's happening is in Amelia's head and how much is an actual haunting open. In that choice, it falls in with woman-centric horror classics like The Innocents and Rosemary's Baby, in which a female character's terror gets written off by others as hysteria or madness. But Amelia's unremarked-on depression is as major a presence as any apparition, leaving her limp and quick to embrace defeat with an almost martyred air. When Claire mentions her daughter wants her own birthday party this year instead of a shared one with Sam, Amelia says she understands and that they won't come at all. Amelia is still trying to deal with her husband's death, and given that he was killed in a car accident on the way to the hospital where Sam was being born, his passing and her son are tied up in her mind in all sorts of challenging ways.
The Babadook's finale doesn't entirely satisfy the intense buildup that comes before it, and it's the rare instance in the film in which its limited budget shows. But The Babadook is still a deftly inventive and psychologically charged horror story that trades on the ways in which the prospect of maternal failure can be just as fearsome a boogeyman as any monster under the bed.