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'Babadook' movie review: A horror film that aspires to more than frights

Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman in

Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman in "The Babadook," an IFC Midnight release. Photo Credit: TNS / Matt Nettheim

The best horror movies aspire to more than just scaring the audience. No other genre is more ideally suited to reflect the deepest and darkest sides of existence, the terrible feelings and impulses that we spend our lives submerging, in an exploration of what the film theorist Robin Wood deemed "the actual dramatization of the dual concept of the repressed/the Other in the figure of the Monster."

They just don't get better than "The Babadook," a new film from Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent that finds this inherently cinematic genre in peak form.

This is, put simply, an expressionist masterpiece that engages with deeply personal concerns in a fashion that is at once terrifying and emotional.

It will one day be ranked in the pantheon of horror classics alongside "The Shining," "The Exorcist" and others. It's that great.

Essie Davis plays single mom Amelia, struggling to care for her troubled son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) who must grapple with an ominous supernatural force in their house.

What sounds like a conventional horror setup is in fact merely the blueprint for a story that unfolds between the lines of the plot.

It's a film about the anxiety of a mother who can't bring herself to feel the way she should about her son, for complicated and tragic reasons. The picture is built around that notion, in darkened and shadowy rooms, with increasingly ominous images and discordant sounds reflecting a tortured state of mind.

The movie is extraordinarily evocative, with Kent in total command as she illustrates the instability and isolation that are the essence of this narrative. The Babadook, the terror tormenting this mother and son, is heard in a creaking voice and seen only in quick bursts. The movie isn't showy: There's a consistent focus on these characters, their backstory and the ways they are affected by this dangerous situation.

"The Babadook" goes straight for the gut; it's as intense and visceral an experience that you'll find at the movies this year. Most impressively, it also aims for the heart. Behind all the terror is a love story, really, about a son's unceasing devotion to his mother that frames her love for him within a relentless struggle to stave off the worst instincts and emotions.

It's deeply moving and completely terrifying. I've never seen anything like it.

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