The Babadook ★★★★

Essie Davis hates her son. It's not a seething, deliberate hatred but a rattling, itching one. She hates his closeness in bed, hands wrapped around her arms, his torso pressed against her spine, his wet hot breath on the back of her neck. She waits for him to fall asleep so she can wriggle away from him.

Her life is falling apart, and not just because Sam (Noah Wieseman) is an out-of-control kid who poses a danger to his classmates. Her casual job at an aged-care home foreshadows her inevitable future, and she keeps missing her shifts to look after Sam. So starved is she for intimacy that even a 1940s production-code kiss is enough to drive her to bed with a vibrator. Her masturbation is a desperate act; an attempt to temporarily blot out the swells of misery unfurling all around her. She'd be okay if she could think or sleep - if her sister would stop scolding her, or if Samuel, her son, would stop popping up like a demented Jack-in-the-Box, hungry with needs she can't satisfy.

And then there's The Babadook. He's a robed, spidery figure in a top-hat she first notices in Sam's pop-up book (one she can't remember getting). Is he a figment of her imagination or she is a figment of his? They are both equally horrifying creations in their own way. The Babadook isn't explained; he remains an elusive figure that lurks in the shadows. He's a black clown at a kids' princess party, a coat hanging on a rack in a police station, an inhuman voice on the phone, a fracture in Davis' false smile. There's no ridiculous demonologist character on-hand to explain what's going on and set up a resolution. When the movie finished I wondered if I'd seen him at all - even though his presence pervades every frame.

First-time director Jennifer Kent wants the Babadook to be a suggestion, a likeness, but is unafraid to make him nuanced and original. She keeps him in our peripheral vision and just out of reach so that he evokes the villains of our own personal nightmares. Essie Davis is a wonderful anti-heroine. With perpetually tired eyes, disheveled hair and a pale complexion she embodies the unprepared, coming-apart mother, forever making the hopeless 100-yard dash.

Is this film about demons or mental illness? At one point Davis notices her kitchen is filled with cockroaches. She finds a crack in the wall behind the refrigerator that resembles the entryway to a womb. She stares at it as roaches suddenly spill out in all directions. How does one even begin to classify horror like that?

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