There are psychological horror films, and then there is "The Babadook," a startling first feature from the Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent. "The Babadook" begins as a seemingly conventional story about childhood fears come to life, but gradually delves deeper and deeper into its own underlying symbolism. Eventually, the whole movie seems to be taking place within its heroine's murky subconscious. You might call "The Babadook" a psychoanalytic horror film.
Initially, it all seems very familiar. Essie Davis plays Amelia, whose husband was killed in a car accident while taking her to the hospital to deliver Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Guilt and blame weigh on Amelia; no mention of her husband is allowed. Samuel is now a loving and playful 7-year-old, though with a few behavioral problems. Pale, wide-eyed and wild-haired, he scares other children with talk of monsters. He also crafts ingenious weapons to fight them.
Their weakened family unit attracts a predator, the Babadook, contained in a book that mysteriously appears on Samuel's shelf one night. In a long line of creepy horror-movie books ("The Evil Dead" comes to mind), this one is a standout, a lovingly-crafted volume with Edward Gorey-style illustrations and hand-stamped fonts. And wouldn't you know it -- it's a pop-up book, too.
What follows is a classic haunting story, as The Babadook terrorizes both Amelia (who disbelieves) and Samuel (who believes fervently). Slowly, though, the question becomes: Whose monster is this? Amelia, short on sleep, begins to snap at her son. She hallucinates and sees visions of an unimaginably tragic future.
"The Babadook" borrows heavily from early David Lynch, not just his award-winning short "The Grandmother" but his classic "Eraserhead," an extended nightmare that often plays out on a literal stage (the same happens more than once in "The Babadook").
Kent invents a narrative twist that is remarkably clever and possibly unprecedented. "The Babadook" works as horror film, fairy tale and therapy session, which might all be the same thing in the first place.