Beware The 'Babadook,' The Monster Of Your Own Making The monsters of repression are what terrorize a mother and her son in this independent, Australian, horror movie. "I wanted it to look more low-fi and more handmade," says director Jennifer Kent.

Beware The 'Babadook,' The Monster Of Your Own Making

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A little movie from Australia is one of this season's buzziest films. It's called, "The Babadook." It's an independent, feminist horror movie. And it was a sensation at this year's Sundance Film Festival. As you'll hear, it sounds terrifying. And as NPR's Neda Ulaby explains, "The Babadook's" horror is not gory, but psychological.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: It can be tricky in "The Babadook" to tell the monsters from the heroes. The main characters are a frazzled, single mom and her difficult, 6-year-old son.


NOAH WISEMAN: (As Samuel, screaming) Mommy.

ULABY: The kid's got major behavioral problems. He's aggressive with other kids. He's convinced a monster is after him. And he has terrifying meltdowns in the car.


WISEMAN: (As Samuel, screaming) Mommy.

ESSIE DAVIS: (As Amelia, yelling) Why can't you just be normal?

WISEMAN: (As Samuel, screaming).

ULABY: Horror movie scholar Caetlin Benson-Allott finds this scene scary, emotionally and sonically.

CAETLIN BENSON-ALLOTT: What's so grating, like, when he's having his temper tantrum in the backseat, is not actually him kicking the front seat or screaming, mommy, but this sort of shrieking, electrical noise that isn't actually coming from the child.


DAVIS: (As Amelia, sobbing).

ULABY: A great premise, she says - a child who fights monsters in his mind and his stressed-out, isolated mother.

BENSON-ALLOTT: To acknowledge that being a mother is hard, that sometimes you hate your child and you don't know how to cope - that was new to me. That was something I don't think we've seen in horror before.

ULABY: We've seen lots of horror movies involving mothers but few with kids in recognizable emotional distress. This boy sees a therapist after he's kicked out of school.


TERENCE CRAWFORD: (As the therapist) He's obviously suffering a high level of anxiety, very committed to the monster theory.

DAVIS: (As Amelia) That's an understatement.

CRAWFORD: (As the therapist) All children see monsters.

DAVIS: (As Amelia) Not like these. And it's getting worse.

ULABY: The monster here is the Babadook. He's a sinister thing with a top hat, feathery, black fingers and a hungry, toothy mouth. He shows up first in a children's book that seems to have come from nowhere.


DAVIS: (As Amelia) Where'd you get this?

WISEMAN: (As Samuel) On the shelf.

ULABY: The pale, pretty mother does not remember buying the book. But she and her son cuddle up with it under a quilt for a little bedtime reading.


DAVIS: (As Amelia, reading) His name is Mr. Babadook. And this is his book.

ULABY: It starts off innocently enough.


DAVIS: (As Amelia, reading) A rumbling sound, then three sharp knocks, ababa dook dook dook.

ULABY: Imagine an evil pop-up book designed by Edward Gorey. The Babadook is a smudgy, black-and-white monster with scribbles for eyes. The book gets scarier as it goes on.


DAVIS: (As Amelia, reading) See him in your room at night.

WISEMAN: (As Samuel) Mom, does it hurt the boy? Mom, does it live under the bed? Mom?

ULABY: First-time director Jennifer Kent made up the Babadook. It's not, as some have wondered, based on a real Australian folktale.

JENNIFER KENT: For me, this story was a myth in a domestic setting.

ULABY: A story defined by a melancholy palette of blues and grays. The Babadook has a particular, old-fashioned aesthetic of its own. He appears in that pop-up book and on late-night TV. The mom's exhausted. She's flipping channels alone in her living room when she sees a grainy, silent film with a monster looking back - the Babadook.

Even if director Jennifer Kent had the budget for expensive, computer-generated effects, she says she would've kept her's quaint, analog and creepy.

KENT: Well, you know, I wanted it to look low-fi and more handmade. And I think it's more savage that way.

ULABY: The best effects, says scholar Caetlin Benson-Allott, might just be the movie's young star.

BENSON-ALLOTT: I think the director did such a good job finding a creepy child. (Laughter).

ULABY: That child, Noah Wiseman, was 6 when "The Babadook" was filmed.


DAVIS: (As Amelia) If the Babadook was real, we'd see it right now, wouldn't we?

WISEMAN: (As Samuel) It wants to scare you first. Then you'll see it.

DAVIS: (As Amelia) Well, I'm not scared.

WISEMAN: (As Samuel) You will be when it creeps into your room at night.

DAVIS: (As Amelia) That's enough.

WISEMAN: (As Samuel) You will be when it eats your insides.

ULABY: The film's director, Jennifer Kent, acted as a child herself. She says that made her extra-sensitive.

KENT: Yeah, I've seen, like, directors' commentaries on films with kids. And I'm appalled at how they got performances.

ULABY: Kent got hers, she says, by working very closely with the actor's mother, a child psychologist, especially in scenes when his character is in danger.

KENT: We didn't have him in any of those difficult scenes. You know, he was removed, and we had an adult actor come in and kneel down.

ULABY: In those difficult scenes, says horror scholar Caetlin Benson-Allott, you're not always sure if you're seeing a real monster or one that comes from repressing your feelings.


TIM PURCELL: (As the Babadook) Babadook dook dook.

BENSON-ALLOTT: This is a film about making your own monsters and the damage we do to our families and within our families.

ULABY: Making "The Babadook" not only one of the most talked-about horror movies of the year, but perhaps perversely, one for the holidays after all. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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