Film review: ‘The Babadook’ makes parenting scary

Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman enjoy story time in “The Babadook.”

Three and a half stars

The Babadook Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Barbara West. Directed by Jennifer Kent. Not rated. Available on Video on Demand.

Children know that children’s books can often be inadvertently terrifying, and the Australian horror movie The Babadook uses that to great effect, transferring a child’s irrational (but all-encompassing) fear to an equally traumatized parent. Ever since her husband was killed in a car accident while driving her to the hospital to deliver their son, Amelia (Essie Davis) has been living in a state of shock, barely able to give her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) the love he deserves. Samuel, in turn, has become disobedient and stubborn, acting out at school and rarely listening to his mother.

Into this toxic relationship comes a mysterious book titled Mister Babadook, whose whimsical storyline soon turns sinister. Amelia discards the book, but the title character remains, seemingly infecting her home and tormenting her child. The more she tries to deny it, the stronger the monster grows. Is it a ghost, or a demon, or just a manifestation of her own ambivalence about being a parent?

Mainly it’s that last one, which means that The Babadook can sometimes be a little thematically blunt. But it’s also deeply unsettling, thanks to Davis’ gradually more unhinged performance and writer-director Jennifer Kent’s emphasis on atmosphere over quick scares. The production design mimics the stark, monochromatic style of the creepy book, and Amelia and Samuel’s cozy suburban house eventually becomes a claustrophobic trap. The conclusion is a little anticlimactic, but it shows how the fears and doubts of parents (and children) never really go away, and can only be placated and contained.

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