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If there was one film that most horror and genre critics seemed to agree on in 2014, it was Australian actor-turned-director Jennifer Kent’s fearless debut, The Babadook (2014). Kicking completely against the mainstream thirst for franchises, familiarity, sequels and found footage, Kent’s film is a fiercely original and, at times, genuinely frightening, treatise on fractured families, difficult children and the mothers who must hold them all together, even when the only reward is the promise of more pain at the end of another difficult day.

Single-mother Amelia (Essie Davis) is doing her best to raise her young son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), although the boy’s very obvious emotional and developmental issues don’t make it a walk in the park. Amelia is still trying to get over the death of her husband (he died while driving Amelia to the hospital to deliver Samuel) and her son’s constant violent outbursts and spirited “antics” serve to both isolate her from everyone around her and constantly remind her of her beloved, dead husband. Amelia works in a rather dreary old-folks home, lives alone in her large house with her disruptive son and has only her standoffish sister, Claire (Hayley McElhinney), for occasional company, although Samuel’s behavior ensures that Claire spends as little time at Amelia’s place as possible.

In every way possible, parenthood is a full-time job for Amelia, above and beyond anything else in her life: she has to keep bringing Samuel home from school due to his propensity for taking homemade crossbows to class and, once at home, every minute of the day is devoted to Samuel’s care. In a particularly telling scene, poor, lonely Amelia can’t even get a few spare minutes to masturbate in bed before Samuel comes rampaging in, off on some hyperactive bustle of activity like a tiny, pubescent Tazmanian Devil. Amelia is constantly tired, depressed, stressed-out, overwhelmed and isolated: whenever she looks to her son for affection, she’s met with angry outbursts, violence and uncontrollable chaos. Imagine the hell of being forced to care for someone who not only doesn’t seem to appreciate your efforts but who actively fights and pushes back against you at every possible opportunity…there’s nothing enviable about that whatsoever.

As if all of this weren’t enough to send someone screaming into the abyss, however, young Samuel suddenly comes up with a heretofore unknown bedtime story called Mr. Babadook. The creepy pop-up-book seems to have appeared out of nowhere and is sort of like Clive Barker taking a stab at Dr. Seuss. Needless to say, Samuel is completely unnerved by the sinister, shadowy figure of Mr. Babadook and his mother is only too eager to hide the book and move on with life. As Samuel seems to become more and more obsessed with the book, however, things begin to happen around the house, things which the boy blames on the increasingly evil Babadook: it all reaches a head when Amelia finds glass in her soup, another bit of “mischief” attributed to the story-book villain. For Amelia, the implication seems clear, despite her son’s protests: his behavior has progressed to the point where she can no longer safely care for him.

Buffeted on all sides, Amelia begins to feel her tenuous grasp on reality slip: she begins to see hints of the Babadook everywhere, including the local police station, and there always seems to be something sinister lurking outside her field of vision in her dark, creepy house. Already pushed to the breaking point, Amelia begins to lash out violently at the one continued source of her strife: Samuel. As Amelia becomes more and more obsessed, however, the situation becomes more and more murky: is Amelia falling under the dread influence of the sinister Mr. Babadook, is she losing her mind or is there something altogether more apocalyptic going on?

Despite its surface similarity to a handful of other films, including Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) and James Wan’s Insidious (2010), The Babadook is wonderfully original, inventive and just out-of-step enough with the current mode of horror film to make it seem more refreshing than it might be in any other era. There’s an effortlessly old-fashioned quality to Kent’s film that recalls ’80s horror, such as Pumpkinhead (1988), without slavishly imitating the era. There’s nothing about this that screamed “period piece,” yet everything about the film’s style and execution pointed back to these older films.

One of the most difficult aspects of crafting a memorable horror film is always the creature/villain and Kent’s Mr. Babadook is truly interesting, creepy and fascinating. Equal parts Coffin Joe and Freddy Krueger (albeit much less loquacious), we don’t get any backstory, which ends up being a big plus: there’s a genuine sense of mystery to the proceedings, since nothing is over-explained. While I think that the film definitely takes a side on the “Is it or isn’t it real?” issue, there’s a refreshing lack of hand-holding that allows for some real emotion to shine through.

In fact, the single most impressive thing about Kent’s film, aside from its decidedly old-fashioned take on horror, is the crushing heft of the film’s emotional content. At its best, Amelia’s descent into insanity recalls Polanski’s Repulsion (1965): we’re never far from the notion of a strictly supernatural cause for the disturbances, unlike Polanski’s film, but there always a distinctly queasy unease over what is and isn’t really happening. Once the film really takes off, in the final reel, it seems a bit less open for interpretation (although there’s still a margin one way or the other) but the lead-up to that is impressively open-ended.

Much has been made of Essie Davis’ stunning performance as Amelia and, to be honest, all accolades seem fairly earned. This is the kind of raw, painful, agonized performance that would all but guarantee an actor an endless stream of awards and nominations in anything but an explicitly genre-based film. As it is, Davis’ performance will probably be one of those “best-kept-secret” deals for horror fans, something for us to gloat over whenever non-believers spout off about how facile and “silly” horror films are. The facts are quite plain and undeniable: horror and genre films are not afforded the same level of respect as other types of film and this is often to the detriment of truly great performances like Davis’.

The Babadook is precisely the kind of “prestige” horror film that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible, the kind of film that could easily break out to a much wider audience. The film looks absolutely gorgeous, for one thing: Radek Ludczuk’s cinematography is wonderfully evocative and it’s easily one of the best-looking films of the year. The production design is completely immersive, with some really awesome work being done on the creepy pop-up-book (the bit that foreshadows Amelia and the dog is insanely cool), as well as the house location. One of the biggest surprises for me regarding The Babadook is just how polished and amazing the film looks for a debut feature: it’s almost impossible for me to believe this was the product of a first-time filmmaker. I daresay that the finale, which manages to combine Time Bandits (1981), In the Mouth of Madness (1994) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), may be one of my favorites of the year, even as it manages to wrap up the film’s themes with a nice bow.

One of the great shames of the horror industry is that female voices are so under-represented: roughly 90% of horror film “victims” are female, yet you can practically count the number of female horror filmmakers on one hand. Couple this with the fact that actual female stories are so few and far between and it makes something like The Babadook seem even more special. Here we have an exquisitely well-made, genuinely scary horror film, told from a female perspective, and written and directed by a bold, new female filmmaker. This is precisely the kind of film that must be supported if folks want to see a more balanced, interesting and original kind of horror film, in the future. If nothing else, The Babadook should serve as bracing notice that Jennifer Kent is here: she’s kicked the door wide open and I, for one, can’t wait to see what she does next.