In most horror movies, the creepy early scenes are all about building up to the moment when we finally see the monster. In writer/director Jennifer Kent's magnificent debut feature The Babadook, we realize that we've been watching the monster all along.
It's the story of Amelia (Essie Davis), a widowed Australian nurse who has raised her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), alone for the seven years since her husband died in a car crash on the way to the hospital for Samuel's delivery. Samuel's anxieties and emotional problems keep Amelia perpetually on edge and sleepless, but things get even worse when a mysterious picture book appears introducing a shadowy figure called Mister Babadook.
Purely as a piece of filmmaking, The Babadook announces Kent as a spectacular new talent. Her compositions are icily precise, like a shot that shows Amelia clinging to the far side of the bed Samuel constantly invades, or the dark empty spaces surrounding Amelia during her insomniac episodes. From the sound design to the chilling construction of the Mister Babadook book itself, it's a work that nails every technical component a genre film needs.
Yet The Babadook is also one of the most psychologically complex thrillers in years, anchored by a performance by Davis that is simply the best lead female role in any movie of 2014. The film's titular menace becomes a physical manifestation of all the demons that haunt Amelia: unprocessed grief; seeing in her son part of the responsibility for her husband's death; the sheer exhaustion of dealing with a special-needs child; the guilt at relishing every moment away from that child. Through every truly terrifying moment in The Babadook, there's an even scarier subtext: It's not possible to find the happy ending by killing the monster, when the monster is really the stuff that's inside you.