Jennifer Kent’s spooky debut made quite an impression at its Sundance premiere.
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20 Jan 2014 - 11:00 AM  UPDATED 20 Jan 2014 - 1:36 PM

When Jennifer Kent's Australian film The Babadook world premiered as the opening film of Sundance's Midnight section at 11.59 last Friday night, it emerged for me as the best films of the festival until that time. At the screening, wrapt audiences oooohed and aaaahed, joining in with the mayhem as Essie Davis's Amelia tries to protect her six-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), from an expressionistic Nosferatu-like demon, the Babadook. The following day, critics sang the film's praises, which made it a must-see film at the Festival.

Steve Greene: Indiewire
“If horror movies were somehow constructed via a sports-style draft, imagine what visual and storytelling elements would be top picks. Flickering lightbulbs? Sure thing. Mysterious basement? You bet. Shrieking children? Most definitely. So it's a testament to Australian director Jennifer Kent's feature debut "The Babadook" that it manages to incorporate so many of these ingredients from lesser films to create something that's compelling even when it's not disturbing on a primordial level.”

Drew McWeeny: Hitfix
“Asking a kid to go through any of this, even when he knows it's all pretend, is not an easy thing, and much of the film comes down to a two-character battle of the wills. It takes a real sense of trust between the two for any of this to work, and Kent deserves credit for steering them through some very difficult material.

Russ Fischer: Slashfilm
“The Babadook is the best possession movie in years…. The filmmakers found Noah Wiseman, who plays the young Sam, at exactly the right time in his life. He's got big eyes and a giant toothy smile, and uses them to flip from adorable to tiny terror in a beat. Essie Davis puts out so much energy, she all but turns herself inside out.

Presenting the film, programmer Trevor Groth recalled watching The Babadook after viewing another 10 movies that day. It caught his attention. “It spooked the hell out of me,” he told the crowd in his introduction. Following the screening, everyone stayed on to hear Kent and Davis explain how they created such an artistic horror thriller, while managing to protect their young charge and make it fun for him. Davis, looking glamorous and brunette like her character from Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, was animated on stage and was clearly excited.

“This is one of the hardest roles I have ever played, but luckily I was directed by my dear friend,” she said. “Preparing for the role was really, really challenging. It was extremely heightened when Amelia became infected. A lot of it was talking about this spider-like creature climbing up the walls and also her jerky movements. I studied a lot of Butoh dance, which is kind of like a possessed dance.

[ Read: SBS Film's interview with Jennifer Kent ]

“I didn't even want to audition for the role originally! It's a magnificent role of course but I was so terrified of having to become that monster and for that monster to be as empathetic and terrifying as Amelia the mother is vulnerable and beautiful. Jen and I did a lot of work alone in private. After doing a lot of our research, she played music for me and talked me through it as if we were in a drama school movement workshop. Because I'd known her for so long, and because she's done lots of other brave things in her life, I went to lots of brave places with her, and then I felt brave enough to go to those places in front of the crew when I met them a couple of weeks later.”

Working with Noah was very complicated, Davis said. “He was six and we wanted to protect him from what that child had to experience. So there was a lot of us screaming our heads off and crying really loudly and going, “Do you want to do that?” and making up terrible stuff like, “I am going to put all your Lego into a bucket and fill it with cement and throw it in the ocean”, and he'd be like, 'Oooohhhhh'. But there were plenty of times where we wanted to get some really poignant terror and sadness in there too.”

For the record, prior to The Babadook, in Sundance I'd already seen:

*The highly praised opener Whiplash: good but overwrought; JK Simmonds' tightly coiled music teacher is reminiscent of R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket, while Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now) displays why he is such an up-and-comer in a host of movies including Divergent, a would-be Hunger Games.

*Camp X: Ray: Kristin Stewart's performance is strong even if she's hardly believable as a Guantanamo Bay guard. The film is slow until the end and is very predictable. Iranian actor Peyman Moaadi is exceptional as the detainee she bonds with.

*God's Pocket: After directing episodes of Mad Men, John Slattery makes his feature directing debut with a black comedic tale of small town life where everyone is in each other's pocket. Philip Seymour Hoffman is compelling as always, as is his onscreen wife, Christina Hendricks. The actors even share a sex scene. The film is based on the 1983 novel by The Paperboy author Pete Dexter.

*Laggies: Lynn Shelton going more commercial with Keira Knightley in a light-hearted take on youth giving way to adulthood even if you're in your 20s.

*Frank: Supposedly the perfect Sundance film according to Sundance director John Cooper. Irish director Lenny Abrahamson's tale of an eccentric band where Michael Fassbender plays a musician who never takes off his large cartoon-faced head. Fun for those prepared to take the ride. Madman already has this.