Jennifer Kent's maternal nightmare The Babadook is the imperial stout of recent fright flicks -- it's the one that will have you walking funny and might rip into your sleep. It's hard to say that you'll enjoy this film, but it's hard not to admire it, if maybe with your eyes half shut. Kent, a first-time writer-director, proves adept with jolts and shadows, but she also digs deeper, into the addled-brain terror of early Roman Polanski where the heroine comes unwound in her home -- and the calls, as they say, might be coming from inside her own head.
The setup feels closer to Jeepers Creepers than Repulsion. Youngish widow Amelia (Essie Davis) is mother to a creepy elementary-aged Samuel (Noah Wiseman) who natters on about a top-hatted, hunch-shouldered soul-eater called the Babadook who plans, the kid insists, to kill him. He gets wind of this beast from a marvelously creepy pop-up book: It has the handmade look of woodcuts and Edward Gorey drawings, but damned and demented; its paper monster trumps other movies' CGI terrors.
Eventually, through complications that never strain credulity, Amelia and Samuel wind up as something like shut-ins, overmedicated, hiding out from a world that Amelia feels rejects them. But we know what she doesn't: that the Babadook has seized control of her, and that through her it will feed on the boy. Or maybe not. We wonder, as a cloaked Babadook appears in her bedroom, as shivery in his full stop-motion reality as he was in pen and paper: Is all this the frothing of Amelia's mind? What if the heroine -- the mother -- the traditional "final girl"-- turns out to be the monster?