The Babadook—a neogothic chiller that marks the feature directing debut of Australian actress Jennifer Kent—makes a convincing argument for classy, psychological horror cinema even as it fails to meet its own lofty standard. Prioritizing atmosphere and characterization over gore, Kent illustrates how fear often derives from internal rather than external forces. A fractured state of mind can be scarier than a knife-wielding psychopath, and even the scariest knife-wielding psychopath can be the personification of a fractured state of mind. (What is Halloween's Michael Meyers if not the lumbering, faceless embodiment of teenage sexual anxiety?) The Babadook embraces this principle but lacks the ambiguity required to deliver on it.
Amelia (Essie Davis), a beaten-down, overworked widow, struggles to raise her son, Sam (Noah Wiseman), who, given to paranoid and psychotic behavior, thinks a monster is coming to kill them. One night mother and child pull from their shelf a mysterious pop-up book about a toothy ghoul called the Babadook, who invades people's lives, controls their minds, and forces them to do evil things—namely, murder their families. Convinced this is the monster he fears, Sam goes off the deep end, forcing Amelia to put him on heavy sedatives. But his panic begins to seem justified as she gradually falls prey to a sinister presence in their aging Victorian home.
Most of the time it's hard to tell whether the haunting is real or Sam and Amelia have succumbed to madness. Kent lets the mystery linger, focusing instead on the cinematography, with its expressionistic framing and its eerie shades of blue and gray. She also pays special attention to setting: as the monster gains power over Amelia, the house grows increasingly grotesque, like something out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (though there are even more architectural references, to The Shining, Repulsion, and The Omen). More than just stylistic tone setters, these elements illustrate the characters' neurotic mindsets and advance the narrative far more effectively than any plot mechanics or expository character development.
Before long, though, Kent begins overexplaining herself. The day Sam was born, Amelia's husband died in a car accident while driving her to the hospital, and she still grieves for him, harboring a deep, unspoken resentment against the child. These complex emotions inform Kent's sympathetic survey of depression and parental angst, but they also serve as an unfortunately literal explanation for the monster's presence. What began as an enigmatic, polysemous force is dumbed down into an unimaginative metaphor, hindering the film's capacity to provoke true fear.