Sometimes it's hard to figure out what keeps drawing people to horror movies. What exactly is so enticing about the prospect of intentionally scaring ourselves? Is it the pure thrill? Is it catharsis? Stephen King has suggested it's to "keep the gators fed."
A new film featured at this year's Sundance Film Festival, "The Babadook," suggests another reason: to confront a personification of the monsters in our pasts.
"The Babadook" was produced in Australia, which supports its otherworldly tone because a) the setting feels (and sounds) foreign, and b) you probably don't recognize any of the actors. The film centers on the relationship of a widow named Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Samuel's father died the day of his son's birth, on the way to the hospital with his mother, and Amelia is struggling to get past the trauma of that incident even as her son is approaching his seventh birthday.
It doesn't help that Samuel seems to have a variety of psychological issues and is obsessed with protecting his mother from an invisible monster. He gets in trouble at school and, whenever he interacts with other children, he either causes trouble with his monster tales or invites it when children make fun of his single parentage. As a result, he can't sleep and focuses his creative energies on inventing elaborate weapons he claims he'll use on the monster.
One day, as Amelia prepares for the evening ritual of getting her paranoid son to bed, Samuel produces a mysterious book called "The Babadook" for his mother to read as a bedtime story, and things get much worse.
The creepy book, bound in a blood-red cover and illustrated as a nightmarish, black-and-white pop-up, tells the story of a boogeyman-like creature with elongated fingers and a top hat. Amelia doesn't remember buying it. After warning readers against letting the Babadook "in," the book mysteriously goes blank for several pages.
Once mother and son have read the book, simple worries about an invisible monster become vivid nightmares and daytime hauntings for both parties. To help her son get some much-needed sleep, Amelia secures a prescription that she quickly starts sharing herself.
It's far from an original set-up, and the film mines a lot of the standard conventions to get its scares. But by suggesting that the real monster is Amelia's own growing psychosis, "The Babadook" keeps the audience guessing. Even better, director Jennifer Kent's habit of juxtaposing genuinely funny moments with serious scares has a way of keeping viewers shaken and on their guard.
By the third act, "The Babadook" runs into some of the same narrative troubles that often overtake paranormal horror fare (such as last year's "Mama"), but overall the movie is scary enough and quirky enough to justify a viewing. It won't rewrite the book on horror movies, but it offers a fun chapter.
As a pre-distribution Sundance release, "The Babadook" is not rated but hovers close to the PG-13/R rating line thanks to some profanity (including two uses of the F-word), sexual content and frightening images/gore.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.