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Prayers And Holy Water Can't Exorcise The Terrifying 'Babadook'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

One of the sensations of this year's Sundance Film Festival was a low-budget Australian horror film called "The Babadook." The story of a mother, a son and a top-hatted demon was written and directed by Jennifer Kent, a former actress. On Monday, "The Babadook" was awarded the prize for the year's best first film by the New York Film Critics Circle. Our film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The greatest horror stories center not on monsters from without but from within - born of our repressed anxiety, resentment, guilt, rage or all of the above. Now into the demon from within Pantheon creeps Jennifer Kent's phenomenally scary Australian chiller "The Babadook."

He's a bogeyman out of a twisted bedtime story - literally out of it since he announces himself in a rhyming black-and-white, pop-up book that appears on the shelf of a pale 7-year-old named Sam. His mother, Amelia, played by Essie Davis, is a convalescent home aid. Her husband died in a car crash while driving her to the hospital when she was in labor. She's still grieving. It shows in her bedraggled face and snarl of blonde hair. She's lonely, exhausted, financially uncertain, under incessant pressure, much of it from Sam, played by Noah Wiseman - a bright, sweet little kid, but volatile, on the verge of being kicked out of school. That's the context in which Amelia perches on her son's bed and reads from this mysterious book about a man with a black undertaker's coat, a top hat, a pasty white face and fingers like talons. The book is called "Mr. Babadook."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BABADOOK")

ESSIE DAVIS: (As Amelia) If it's in a word or it's in a look, you can't get rid of The Babadook. If you're a really clever one and you know what it is to see, then you can make friends with a special one - a friend of you and me.

NOAH WISEMAN: (As Sam) (Laughter).

DAVIS: (As Amelia) His name is Mr. Babadook, and this is his book. A rumbling sound - then three sharp knocks - ba ba ba dook dook dook. That's when you'll know that he's around. You'll see him if you look.

WISEMAN: (As Sam) Ba ba ba dook dook dook.

EDELSTEIN: As Amelia turns the pages, the verses turn kid-unfriendly with a vengeance. The Babadook wants her to let him in - not into the house since he's already there - but into her. The Babadook is set up better than any monster in any film I've seen in decades. This is writer-director Jennifer Kent's first feature, and she's already uncanny. The images feel as if they've leapt from the collective unconscious of horror and fantasy fans. Kent can freeze your bones with the crackling of lights and sudden off-kilter perspectives. The editing is key to Amelia's edginess. The cuts come a beat earlier or a beat later than we expect. So like Amelia, we never relax.

Essie Davis is known for TV and stage work in the U.K. and Australia. And she makes Amelia's despair astonishingly vivid. Young Noah Wiseman is just as good. He's a cute kid with a pop-up storybook face - those huge eyes on that little head scream, I need, I need. Sam vows he'll protect his mom from The Babadook, but the fight, in the end, is between Amelia and Amelia. It doesn't take long to realize that Kent is less interested in the ghoul itself than a psyche in crisis.

The last part of "The Babadook" is an exorcism thriller but different from those films in which a male authority from the church arrives to expel a demon from the bosom of a family. Prayers and holy water can't exercise The Babadook. Can anything? The end is remarkably satisfying and utterly free of smug piety.

"The Babadook" isn't perfect. Once Amelia and Sam are shut up in their house, the structure becomes a little monotonous. A symptom of many claustrophobic-descent-into-madness films. And it could be argued that the movie is too obviously about motherhood - not monsters. But that obviousness doesn't lessen the terror. It makes it cut all the deeper. I'll let the monster have the last word

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BABADOOK")

TIM PURCELL: (As The Babadook) Ba ba dook dook dook.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.