By Clark Collis
Updated October 30, 2014 at 04:35 PM EDT
Matt Nettheim

Horror directors these days seem to almost automatically genuflect before the altars of such ’70s and ’80s filmmakers as John Carpenter and Dario Argento. But writer-director Jennifer Kent sought inspiration from much older auteurs while crafting her debut film, the much-acclaimed, Sundance-screened, The Babadook. “I’ve watched everything, from Mario Bava to Dario Argento—all of those ‘70s guys, including John Carpenter, who I love,” she says. “But I feel very drawn also to the early stuff. There were directors in the ’20s and ’30s—Carl Dreyer, Fritz Lang—who were making films that were art and they just happened to be terrifying. I think somewhere along the way we denigrated the art form and horror really has become a dirty word. I think that’s a shame, because it’s really cinematic.”

The Babadook stars Essie Davis as a widowed mother whose life begins to unravel when an already fairly terrifying children’s book comes to even more terrifying life. The shoot required the actress to look, let us say, not her best. “I think she knew after reading the script that there was going to be some lensing that maybe wasn’t so flattering,” laughs Kent. “But the amazing thing about Essie is that she is very beautiful but she’s also prepared to be ugly. I don’t just mean physically ugly, I mean the places that that character goes to are monstrous and are not pretty on any level. I think she has tremendous guts—and you actually don’t find that very often with actresses.”

The Babadook opens in cinemas Nov. 28 but is available to watch via DIRECTV starting Thursday. See the DIRECTV teaser trailer below.