“The Babadook,” Reviewed: Chapter and Curse.

Noah Wiseman and Essie Davis in “The Babadook.” (Causeway Films/eOne Films)

Noah Wiseman and Essie Davis in “The Babadook.” (Causeway Films/eOne Films)

Note: This review originally ran in the December 5, 2014 Canandaigua Daily Messenger, when area movie fans could only see The Babadook on cable VOD. It’s now set for a limited release at the Little Theatre, 240 East Ave. in Rochester, beginning this Friday.

Right now The Babadook (not rated, but consider it R), a beguiling first feature from Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent, can only be seen locally in our homes; the Video On Demand release is too small-scale to have attracted the wide-screen theatrical distribution deal it richly deserves. But in a way, that venue is chillingly appropriate – as this is one horror movie whose terrors hit us where we live.

Increasingly, VOD is becoming a haven for movies that are short on budget but long on intelligence and storytelling craft. Kent’s debut effort, adapted from a short film she created in 2005, is a terrific example. It’s unquestionably a genre work, with its share of things that go bump in the night; but it also subverts the expected elements of that film category, with imaginative leaps reminding us that everyday life can be a lot scarier than any knife-wielding sicko.

Set in a quiet suburban town (it was shot in Adelaide, South Australia), The Babadook focuses on Amelia (Essie Davis), a mother whose last nerve is fraying. Eight years ago her husband died in an auto accident while driving her to the hospital to give birth to their first child; now she and young Samuel (Noah Wiseman) are alone, and neither is doing very well. Samuel’s unpredictable behavior is attracting the wrong kind of attention in school, and Amelia is frustrated and frantic at not being able to reach her boy.

Things get much worse when a new storybook appears without explanation in Samuel’s room. “Mister Babadook” starts off a fanciful pop-up tome but swiftly turns macabre and threatening, suggesting the title character is some kind of boogeyman stalker. At this, Samuel goes from bad to worse: He begins scaring other kids with the story, and inventing dangerous traps to protect him and his mom. Soon both mother and son are creeping toward different kinds of antisocial madness – and that’s all before the shadowy creature actually shows up.

Kent smartly avoids too much explanation: We’re never told where the book came from, why Amelia and Samuel have been targeted by this demonic presence, or even how much of it might be all in their minds. She also pulls tremendous performances from her two lead actors, who convey not only the organic love of a mother and son but also the panicky realization that love might not always be enough to see them through.

Horror movies aren’t for everyone, but The Babadook isn’t just a great example of its genre – it’s a great film, full stop. Highly recommended.