It's easy to forget how hard it is to make a decent horror movie in this day and age. For the last 10-15 years studios have been cranking out cheap, low budget horror flicks with non professional actors in the vein of the Saw movies or more recently, the "found footage" phenomenon. These films are made because they cost next to nothing and they make an easy profit due to the opening weekend alone, because there's a built-in audience for horror movies that will show up to see it, no matter how bad it is and no matter how quickly these movies disappear from public consciousness. They simply don't last.
The ones that have stuck around have left their mark on popular culture- classic horror films like The Exorcist, Psycho, Poltergeist, Halloween, Night of the Living Dead. We haven't had a movie come along that's worthy of joining that list for a good many years- until now. Jennifer Kent's The Babadook is a terrifying, primal scream of a movie that instantly takes its place among the classics of the genre, and sears itself into your brain so that you'll never forget it, the way all the best ones have. It manages to pull this off because Kent understands that horror is never simply about cheap thrills- it's about what's underneath those scares, what's simmering under the surface. You're not really afraid of the monster in front you, you're afraid of the one within- and the real issues it represents.
This movie gets under your skin and stays there, because there's something real at stake in the fight with the monster at hand, and that's the fundamental relationship between a mother and her child. Essie Davis stars as Amelia, a single mom whose 6-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) she's unable to keep under control. The boy has "behavioral" issues, as doctors, teachers and friends say, and it's getting worse by the day. Amelia loves her child, but is weary of the difficulty of parenting alone all the time, especially because deep down she resents his birth, as it coincided with the death of her husband. This fractured family unit is in trouble, and into this situation comes another problem child, the monster from Samuel's mysterious bedtime story. The creepy pop-up book seemed to appear out of nowhere, and as Amelia and Samuel read the story it eventually reveals itself as the nightmarish tale of The Babadook, who will literally haunt you until you wish you were dead.
From that point on reality takes a strange turn, and Amelia seems to trade places with her son, gradually beginning to lose her mind as she becomes paranoid by the shadows lurking around every corner of her house and following Samuel and herself wherever she goes. The movie becomes a combination of a woman stalked by her pending insanity (Roman Polanski's Repulsion comes to mind) and that of a ferocious mother who must battle demons from hell to protect her son (shades of Poltergeist). But these influences combine to create something truly unique, and the Babadook itself is one of the most memorable movie monsters since Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, or the shark from Jaws. It's a creation ever more terrifying because of its simplicity and undying nature. Kent creates an intense atmosphere of suspense, fear, and dread as the film rolls along to its unpredictable climax, but the way it wraps up is as satisfying as you would ever want in this kind of story.
This is a must see for horror fans and anyone who thinks they can withstand the pressure (this isn't for kids though, believe me). Davis gives one of the best performances of the year as an exhausted mother who must find it in herself to come alive for her kid, and I only this was able to find a wider audience, as few people will see it in the U.S., so this is really one you have to seek out. It's a winner and believe me, it's here to stay.
* * * 1/2