"The Babadook started out as my own vision," says Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent, of the eponymous monster in her new horror film. "It was everything that I love and everything that I fear. But the film was never about the physical monster. Not to diminish it. It was always a bi-product of Amelia."
Amelia is the single mother in whose home the Babadook scuttles and lurks. She is a tired, frayed-at-the-edges woman still struggling to cope with the death of her husband, who was killed in a car accident on the night she gave birth to her son. Samuel is now an oddball 6-year-old with a violent streak. His schoolmates and their parents can't stand him. He screams at an imaginary monster. He builds weapons to fend it off.
The Babadook, which opens Friday exclusively at the Capitol Theatre, is, without much contention, the best and most unique horror film of 2014. It's both low-budget and appropriately low-fi, relying on the abundant gifts of its stars (Essie Davis and young Noah Wiseman) to convey the intimate horror of a demon invasion, one that is seemingly both supernatural and psychological, one that a mother's own grief (plus the suppression of that grief and the consequent tension with her son) has created and/or magnified.
"It is about grief and sorrow and darkness, of course, but you could never make a straight drama about those things," says Kent. "That's not how I'm built. I love myth. I love stories that are heightened. And when you raise something to a slightly more surreal space, you actually encourage an audience toward a deeper investigation; the themes become more universal."
Kent suspects that's why her little film — her debut as both a writer and a director — is striking such a chord in the United States, Europe and Asia.
It's also, make no mistake, extremely scary. The Freddy Krugeresque Babadook is an 8-foot tall, clawed, cloaked and tophatted clown man. He lives in the closets and the shadows of Amelia and Samuel's creaky home, and he slowly impinges on all aspects of their lives. Though the standard audio and camera tricks elevate the surface-level scares, the monster needs no effects to announce the greatest terror of all: that grief (and certainly single motherhood) can often only be faced alone.
Kent, who sees herself working in the same categories as David Lynch, Lars von Trier and Ingmar Bergman, says she wants to keep making films like this one, in Australia or the U.S. Her next project — hang on to your butts — is "a revenge story about the futility of revenge, set in 1820s Tazmania, a frontier story about the ridiculous nature of an eye for an eye, with a female protagonist."