I went into this one with high hopes but also trying to temper my expectations to avoid disappointment. I had read a few reviews in which the reviewers had compared this film to what is probably my favorite horror film of all time, The Shining. If I enjoyed it a tenth as much as The Shining, it would be the best film I had seen in a long time. While The Babadook was a far cry from The Shining, I did see enough similarities to understand why the reviewers would have drawn the comparisons.
The first half of The Babadook did not seem like a horror film at all. It was slow-moving and seriously depressing in how it presented the story of a widow and her troubled child. We learn that her husband died in a car accident while driving her to the hospital to give birth to their son seven years ago. The boy is now suffering from a variety of emotional problems, as is his mother. Her slow descent into madness was somewhat reminiscent of The Shining, although this looked more like clinical depression and was in some respects easier to believe than whatever Jack was going through. Both actors (i.e., mother and son) did an incredible job of selling the depth of the pain and family dysfunction. Much like The Witch, the acting really elevated this one to be considerably better than what I am used to seeing in contemporary horror. I suppose that could be another valid comparison with The Shining.
My main criticism with the first half of the film, aside from beginning to feel depressed myself, was that the boy was so annoying that I found myself hoping he would not live through the film. I think this was intentional because it was important to be able to connect with how draining this situation had to be for his mother. Because of this, I could respect the decision to present him this way. Still, I found him to be a bit much during this portion of the film, and I wasn't sure why his mother waited so long to try to get him professional help.
Things pick up in the second half when a mysterious pop-up book appears, ushering in a shadowy creature that terrorizes the family. The book itself was fantastic, and its introduction worked well in the film. I don't want to give too much away here, but this is not really a monster flick, at least not in the way the trailer makes it appear. The horror is psychological, and it builds steadily throughout the film. What one sees in the second half should be thought of more as a product of the first half rather than a twist of some sort or even the introduction of a new demonic character. The appearance of the book is the point where it becomes apparent that one is watching a horror film.
What surprised me the most about The Babadook was that I appreciated the film on many levels while at the same time not particularly enjoying it. Was it a good film? Yes, it was a great film in many respects (e.g., creating such an effective mood, allowing one to empathize with the mother, and even providing some mild scares toward the end). Did I like it? No, not really. I don't typically watch horror flicks hoping to feel pervasive sadness. While this one was interesting and well-crafted, I found it too predictable to be scary. I suppose you could say that it had a visceral punch, just not the sort I hope to find in a horror film. I have had this reaction to a few horror films over the years, but I did not expect this to be one of them.
Although things did pick up in the second half of the film, it seemed that the foreshadowing was too extensive. It eliminated much of the suspense by communicating to the audience what was going to happen before it happened. A couple of the more horrific scenes would have had a greater impact had they not been so explicitly telegraphed beforehand. This took me out of the film to some degree and made it less effective.
Since some fans of this film have been quick to accuse anyone who criticizes it of not understanding it, I should note that I understood and appreciated the heavy symbolism. I'm puzzled how anyone with half a brain could watch The Babadook and not easily figure out what was being depicted. It isn't like it was all that subtle, after all. I thought the ending made perfect sense, and I could not have imagined a better one for this film. Thus, I am confident that I got what it was going for. But while I got it and appreciated much about it, I can't say that I liked the film all that much.