The Babadook review

Emphatically not suitable for children

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Great horror films are always about something other than what they purport to be. Golden-age classics such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre , for example, reenacted the traumas of Vietnam; while Japanese ghost story Ringu resonated with millennial techno-fear.

Based on her 2006 short, Monster , Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent’s feature debut is both a terrific spook story and a moving ode to mourning. The fact Kent keeps both elements so elegantly aloft is just one of the film’s many surprises – most of them rather more unpleasant. Widowed mum Amelia (Essie Davis) lives alone with her troubled son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who’s young enough to believe in magic – and monsters.

One night he picks a bedtime story she’s never read him before, Mister Babadook , a beautifully designed pop-up book decked out in doomy blacks about a creature who comes to visit then can’t – or won’t – be moved: “If it’s in a word or in a look, you can’t get rid of a Babadook,” the tome warns. Amelia swiftly puts it away. With Samuel expelled from school and Amelia alienated from everyone except co-worker Daniel Henshall, the pair become increasingly isolated. And you can probably guess the identity of Samuel’s invisible new playmate.

Scared, scarred and scary, Davis and Wiseman both give extraordinary performances. A mess of maternal contradictions, Amelia is a weary, frazzled presence, her outlook skewed by sleep deprivation, shattered patience and aching loneliness. Samuel knows she loves him, and that she doesn’t always like him; the possibility of more loss and rejection looming over them like a malevolent presence. Adding to the poisonous atmosphere is the threat of the Babadook itself, an amorphous nightmare conjured from shadows and dressed in the cast-off clothes of Amelia’s late husband.

It would be a mistake to give too much away about the eponymous beastie, mainly because we’re still terrified of it. But you know a filmmaker’s doing their job when even the title sounds scary – hell, looks scary. Expect a series of decreasing sequels explaining its origins – and avoid them. This isn’t about introducing a new franchise, it’s a film about fear.

Fear of being alone, of death, of not being loved, of being weird, of the encroaching darkness – all legitimate parts of being alive. The Babadook could be a symbol for any unwelcome intruder – jealousy, grief, depression – that creeps in unbidden and can’t be exorcised. And that’s just one of the reasons the film is so devastating.

A haunting tale with deep wells of howling grief at its centre, this is one bedtime story that will stay with you for weeks. Sleep tight...

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Freelance Writer

Matt Glasby is a freelance film and TV journalist. You can find his work on Total Film - in print and online - as well as at publications like the Radio Times, Channel 4, DVD REview, Flicks, GQ, Hotdog, Little White Lies, and SFX, among others. He is also the author of several novels, including The Book of Horror: The Anatomy of Fear in Film and Britpop Cinema: From Trainspotting To This Is England.