A mother and son have just about the worst time imaginable in the horror movie The Babadook, easily the scariest film to come out thus far in 2014.

Amelia (Essie Davis) lost her husband in a car crash while they were driving to the hospital to deliver her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). A former writer, she now works at a retirement home, conducting bingo and serving tea. Amelia seems to be a nice person, but it’s clear her husband’s death took a toll on her.

Samuel is a bright – if somewhat mischievous – boy, doing magic tricks and making weaponry to battle the imaginary monster that lives in his closet. His behavior becomes increasingly erratic after he has his mother read him a bedtime story, a nasty little book called Mister Babadook that just happens to be on the shelf. Samuel becomes convinced that this Babadook is the monster living in his closet.

First-time-feature director Jennifer Kent, who also wrote the screenplay, is a master of the total freak-out. Whether it’s in a nighttime bedroom, or in Amelia’s car in broad daylight, the Babadook is as creepy as creepy gets when he manifests himself. His voice is something you won’t enjoy listening to. It’s akin to that awful, crushed-throat croaking from Ju-On.

Kent gets most of her scares through the use of sound and things we aren’t seeing. I’m usually more of a “Show me the monster!” kind of horror geek, but I’m totally OK with how Kent crafts this film. We do see the Babadook (including his chilling illustration in the children’s book), but he’s more of an off-screen thumper than an onscreen menace. Still, there’s just enough of him to satisfy “Show the goods!” critics such as myself.

Davis’ Amelia is either a sympathetic victim of a monstrous force, or the worst movie mother since Piper Laurie’s religious fanatic in Carrie. It all depends on how you care to take in the movie. If the Babadook is real, then Samuel’s screaming tantrums are quite justified, and Amelia is blameless. If the Babadook is simply Amelia’s way of justifying a hatred of her misbehaving son, well, that makes things that much scarier.

Davis gives us a portrait of a mother under extreme stress, weakened by her state of mind and perhaps unable to cope with her child. The role requires a lot of screaming, and she has a scream that goes straight into the Horror Movie Hall of Fame. She also has a moment, during which she is simply looking through a window, that I truly wish I wasn’t remembering right now.

Much credit goes to Wiseman, a 7-year-old kid with major chops making his screen debut. While Davis and Kent get a lot of credit for what works in the movie, this film wouldn’t be half of what it is without Wiseman. He’s a natural, and he does “scared shitless” like a pro. He handles the more grounded scenes well, too, with many of the results being utterly heartbreaking.

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When things really get rolling, Kent’s film has echoes of genre classics like The ExorcistA Nightmare on Elm Street and Poltergeist, without being derivative. She’s an extremely capable director, but I’m not sure I want her making any more horror movies, because the next one might kill me. (I say this in the most complimentary way possible.)

In case you are wondering whether a Babadook book actually exists: Preorders are under way at thebabadook.com. Yes, the freaky pop-up book in the movie is soon to be a real thing. Give the gift of nightmares this post-Christmas season!

The Babadook (4) Directed by Jennifer Kent • Starring Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Tim Purcell, Hayley McElhinney • Not Rated • 93 min. • At Osio Cinemas..

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