The Babadook (IFC Midnight/Sundance Selects, NR)

film Babadook_75The Babadook is impressive: Imagine if Neil Gaiman wrote the screenplay to a horror movie, and you’d be pretty close.

 

 

film Babadook

Since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival nearly a year ago, the Australian horror film The Babadook has been gaining a general reputation of being the creepiest movie to come out in recent memory. It’s the feature film debut of writer/director Jennifer Kent, and is one of those good genre films that feels at once familiar and fresh.

The premise is fairly simple. A mother, Amelia (Essie Davis, very good), lives alone with her troubled young son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Samuel likes to build weapons, much to his school administrators’ concern, and as such he’s constantly getting in trouble. Samuel’s father died in a car crash while driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth to Samuel; as a result, the two of them have both a strong bond and a haunted past, and she tends to stand up for Samuel when called into school for parent/teacher conferences, even when he is clearly in the wrong. Then one day a picture book turns up in their big, spooky house that neither Amelia nor Samuel remembers being there before: The Babadook. The story, apart from being plain old unsettling, hits a little too close to home for the two of them, and the book and its events haunt, torment, and threaten them, all the while imagery from the book starts finding its way into their lives.

On the whole The Babadook works, but I have one major problem with it that keeps me from enjoying the film as much as it seems the rest of the world has: I hate Samuel. There’s a long string of precedents of creepy little boys in horror films (see: The Omen, Insidious, etc.), but Samuel is a particularly unlikeable little moppet, always screaming and being unreasonable and generally just extremely frustrating to put up with for the film’s 99-minute running time. It’s worth pointing out that the character was surely intentionally made to be a little asshole, but Kent and Wiseman go too far with it, to the extent that I was hoping this would turn out more like Funny Games than The Shining.

Apart from that, though, The Babadook is impressive: Imagine if Neil Gaiman wrote the screenplay to a horror movie, and you’d be pretty close. The film does a good job of making relatively everyday things spooky, most especially old cartoons and silent films, and Davis is a performer to watch. As is Kent a filmmaker to be paid attention to, though maybe in the future she should heed to old filmmaker’s adage never to work with children. | Pete Timmermann

Note to St. Louis readers: The Babadook is available On Demand now, but starts a theatrical run exclusively at the Chase Park Plaza on 12/12. If at all possible, see this one on the big screen.

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