'The Babadook' (R)

Mothers, be careful what you read to your kids at night before bedtime. In The Babadook, the smashing, scary debut from writer-director Jennifer Kent, a single mother, Amelia (Essie Davis), is preparing for the bittersweet seventh birthday of her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). The boy’s father died in a car crash while driving Amelia to the hospital after she went into labor, so her emotions are a tangle: She’s sad and depressed, but she needs to put up a strong front for her child, who has been acting out at school (he gets in trouble for bringing a dart gun to class).

One night, Samuel asks his mother to read him Mr. Babadook, an odd book with a blood-red cover and a silhouette of a mysterious figure. They nestle in bed together and start to leaf through the book, which materialized out of nowhere and has creepy-funny, black-and-white pop-up illustrations of a monster named Babadook that delight the child. “See him in your room at night, and you won’t be able to sleep a wink,” the book reads. “You may also be dead.”

Taken aback by the darkness of the story, Amelia puts the book away. But Samuel, who is convinced Babadook is real, insists on finishing it. The story becomes so disturbing, Amelia decides to destroy the tome. But no matter what she does — rip it into pieces, burn it, whatever — the book keeps showing up, demanding to be read. While Samuel continues to misbehave, Amelia starts to go insane.

Or does she? One of the best things about The Babadook — which has an astonishingly assured style and precise, sharp editing for a first-time feature — is how it uses the genre and many of its hoariest tricks to explore the psychology of two deeply wounded people. Amelia is drowning under the demands of single motherhood, and her distress is exasperated by Samuel’s increasingly combative behavior. They seem to be going crazy in their own respective ways, and the performances by Davis and Wiseman as the harried mother and her tantrum-prone son fulfill the creepy demands of a scary movie while serving as an allegory for mental illness.

Is the Babadook real, or is it just a manifestation of this family’s fears? The movie definitively answers that question in an unusually satisfying finale that favors its characters instead of cheap last-minute jump scares. This is a dark and shivery story about motherhood, a common subject for horror movies, but one that’s rarely treated with such intelligence or seriousness of intent.

Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McElhinney, Daniel Henshall.

Writer-director: Jennifer Kent.

An IFC Films release. Running time: 93 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, strong adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Wynwood, Cosford Cinema.