“The Babadook” is urgent, uncanny and entirely disturbing, a dream within a dream within a nightmare. It is the best English language supernatural film of this new century, and it’s being shown in special screenings Friday and Saturday at the Palace Theatre in Wichita.
In her debut feature, Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent proves herself a stylish filmmaker of serious intent. She creates a fable of domestic horror where madness begets madness. The film is not juvenile for a moment.
Widowed mother Amelia (the great Essie Davis) and her clinging, troubled 7-year-old son, Sam (Noah Wiseman, equally good), are both wounded by his father’s loss. Her husband died driving her to the hospital delivery room. The film begins with Amelia jolting awake from a dream of the crash.
Sam, an angry, increasingly violent problem child, makes mom check inside closets and under beds at the end of every day. When she needs a few moments alone for relief, he bursts in at her like a stalker. He can’t sleep unless they share bedtime storybooks, like the classic about three little pigs and that persistent wolf. One night they find another on his bookshelf, an anonymous fable about a bogeyman: “If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”
Amelia stops reciting it when the rhymes and pop-up images describing Mister Babadook begin to turn darkly perverse. But once this sinister ghoul is introduced, he aims to rip in ever deeper with his stiletto fingertips. It’s as if their anxieties have taken physical shape.
Kent’s voyeuristic spectacle traps us in this deranged private world with its complex, imperfect, stressed characters. Is the Babadook Sam’s vision about causing his father’s death? Or is it Amelia’s hallucination, triggered by her survivor guilt or her unrelieved loneliness? The meticulous Kent provides half a dozen scenarios for each mystery, forcing your imagination to weigh each jarring possibility.
Sam, fearing the monster will kill them both, creates crude weapons to attack it and injures children in school. Amelia tries to quiet him with sleeping pills. Her own depressed nerves go still thinner as her sister, child protection officers and police act as if she’s responsible for Sam’s outbursts, and possibly insane.
Combining fright and psychological analysis, Kent delivers a metaphor of horror and parenthood as powerful as “The Shining,” “The Exorcist” or “Rosemary’s Baby,” where moms and dads learned they were no match for demons.
This is no routine collection of jump-scares but a deeper exploration of dread here. The film writhes with striking images of cinematic poetry and striking performance. It is a phenomenally eerie homage to classic horror, and a thematically fascinating standout in any genre. This beast demands repeat viewings.
Not rated but includes violence, profanity
Showing: 7, 9:15 and 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: Palace Theatre, 555 S. Ridge Circle