Screens at CIFF: 10/10 & 10/21
World premiere: 17 January, 2014, Sundance Film Festival

The business of being a fan of horror movies is a frustrating and thankless one, since they are so especially prone to being bad, but ever so often one comes along that you can stand up and cheer and point at and say "that one. That is what I have been waiting for". And this is what I have found to be the case with The Babadook, the first feature by writer-director Jennifer Kent, whose work I look forward to following with fawning enthusiasm over the next few years. It is, simply, one of the best scary movies in a decade, unflagging in its focus on presenting a completely unnerving spooky story about one of contemporary horror's most deliciously-expressed monsters. And for seasoning, it provides solid character drama, even more solid than it needs to be, on the relationship between a mother and young son who seem locked in some kind of mutually-defeating race to see who can be the more psychologically broken.

The mother is Amelia (Essie Davis), whose husband died in a car accident while taking her to the hospital to give birth to their first son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). This is a trauma from which Amelia hasn't come close to recovering, seven years on; among the tetchy and wrong-headed ways that she seeks to keep the memories of the accident buried down, we learn that she hasn't ever permitted Samuel to celebrate his birthday on his birthday, and it's clear that this is just the currently most overt way in which she defines herself in terms of loss and suffering. But she loves the boy, fiercely and protectively, and he does need a lot of protection: Samuel's apparent inability to distinguish properly between reality and fantasy has begun causing serious problems in school and in his ability to relate to other children.

It's a fucked situation all told, and like all fucked situations in the movies, it just wants one slight nudge to send it into nuclear overdrive. That nudge comes in the form of a pop-up book that neither Amelia nor Samuel recognises, but it was on his bookshelf, so it had to come from somewhere: it is titled "Mr. Babadook", and in its charcoaled, black-and-white-and-grey pages, Amelia reads to her son the slight tale of a funny man in a top hat and overcoat who comes knocking on your door like this: "ba-ba-ba, DOOK-DOOK-DOOK". And if you let him in… By the third page, Amelia's starting to figure out that this book, silly name and funny man and all, is the worst possible thing to read to a child, what with the long dagger-like fingers and the enormous teeth and the implication that Mr. Babadook wants to be let in so he can devour you body and soul, from the inside out. But books that came from nowhere in horror movies are like burnt popcorn: the stench lingers on for ages. And of course, it's not even a full day later before Samuel starts insisting that he has encountered Mr. Babadook, and Amelia starts spotting combinations of hats and overcoats that seem, for all the world, to be stalking her.

Generic boilerplate bullshit, but Kent plays this overfamiliar notes like a violin prodigy who's just been handed a Stradivarius. To begin with, there's the way that The Babadook actually succeeds at selling one of the hoariest and almost always least-convincing tricks in the horror movie handbook: it's quite impossible to tell, on the evidence presented onscreen, whether the Babadook exists, or if it's just one more of Samuel's overheated games, and this time Amelia's simply too worn out from the strain of pretending everything is fine to maintain her own grip on reality. The effect is much the same either way: we get to witness as a tenuous mother/son relationship descends into chaotic hell. It's fascinating how this plays out, and almost impossible to describe without spoiling it, but I think I can indicate without giving away the game that the film shifts its perspectives within that relationship, quietly but very abruptly, and its scene-by-scene understanding of what dangers Samuel is in versus what dangers Amelia is in, either from the Babadook or from anything else, is fluid enough that the whole movie becomes shifty and unpredictable in ways that I did not anticipate and thoroughly approve of. Though I am a little let down by how the final act starts to openly borrow from other, awfully famous horror films.

An intriguing and unsettling depiction of an unsustainable family situation is one thing, and it's what makes The Babadook all, like, respectable. But it's more the foundation for the movie's best triumph, which is how magnificently, wonderfully scary it is. I have been thinking over it for days, and I still can't say how Kent and her crew got so much out of such standard ingredients: certainly, the film's fevered, rattling sound mix helps, operating on a bone-vibrating level much in the same fashion as The Conjuring so effectively demonstrated last year. There's more to it than that, though, much more: something about The Babadook, and particularly the Babadook itself, ties into childhood fears about strange man-like beasts hiding in the shadows and under the bed, but it does so on a completely adult level. And that is the magic X-factor that Kent and her team have exploited to my complete enthusiasm, but also my absolute befuddlement. Certainly, whatever member of the design team was responsible for the pop-up book deserves some kind of newly-created Nobel Price in Bed-Wetting Terror; just the cover of the damn thing, with its shabby DIY feel and blood red color, was enough to have my quivering by the film's midway point.

For whatever reason, though, the film exists, and it's a marvel: intellectually horrifying for its merciless depiction of a parent and child feeding each other's psychological disintegration, viscerally horrifying for the Jungian nightmare beast creeping around on the edges. Though I have no clue how it all works, I can't wait to revisit it and re-revisit it throughout the years, trying to figure it out. This one is destined to become a genre classic.