RATING |

No matter how successful The Babadook turns out to be - and Jennifer Kent's horror story deserves all the success it gets - the prospects of a best-selling kid-lit tie-in don't look good.

The title of this effectively creepy, old-school Australian psychodrama refers to a children's picture book that mysteriously finds its way onto a shelf in the house where Amelia (Essie Davis) and her soon-to-be-7-year-old, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), live. The pop-up images of a cackling bogeyman begin to haunt the boy, and taunt his mother. Shredding the pages and throwing Mister Babadook in the trash doesn't seem to work. Somehow, the titular terror insinuates himself back inside, and into the imaginations of its increasingly freaked-out occupants.

It is imaginary, isn't it?

Amelia is a widow. Her husband died in a car accident driving her to the hospital on the day Samuel was born. The tragedy makes birthday celebrations difficult, and has cast a shadow of grief over the survivors' home.

Samuel has always been a problem child, agitated, aggressive, disruptive at school. But you can't say he's not innovative: He's a budding magician and a builder, fabricating elaborate weapons to "protect" his mother from monsters that lurk in the closet, under the bed.

When the Babadook appears, though, Samuel's makeshift arsenal doesn't do the trick. And Amelia, a caregiver in a senior citizens facility (tending to a hyperactive kid at home, and to the "dementia ward" at work), is losing it. Sleep-deprived, with bugs crawling out of the walls and strange thumps rattling the bed, she all of a sudden sees that kitchen knife as something that could come in handy - and not in the kitchen.

Kent, who mentored with the Danish groundbreaker Lars von Trier, has as much fun as you can when you're putting your lead actors - one a grade-schooler - through the horror-trope paces.

Yes, the electricity crackles on and off, lamps shatter, the cellar is not a good place to go (but go there you must), and there is even a cute, fluffy pet dog (no, please!). Seeking help from the doctor, the police, the social workers is futile - a one-week prescription for sedatives and awkward, worried stares are the best Amelia can get.

Even Amelia's sister (Hayley McElhinney) has had it. When Samuel pushes his aunt's daughter out of a treehouse, he and his mother are no longer welcome. Amelia's support group is down to none.

The Babadook, then, is a study in madness that lurks beneath the surface. But it is also very much (and amusingly) a look at the trials of parenting, especially single-parenting: those days when you just want to, well, get your child out of the picture somehow. Of course, you don't act on those impulses. That's what the movies are for.

The Babadook *** (Out of four stars)

Directed by Jennifer Kent. With Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McElhinney. Distributed by IFC Films.

Running time: 1 hour, 34 mins.

Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (blood, bugs, bumps in the night).

Playing at: PFS Theater at the Roxy.EndText

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