If nothing else, The Bababook is fascinating. The script (and Kent's keen eye for direction) keeps the audience glued to the screen for the movie's duration, as new clues and strange imagery build a sense of dread and premonition. Essie Davis gives an enveloping performance as a woman consumed by loneliness, frustration, and fear as her character becomes increasingly frazzled and less convinced of her own sanity. Noah Wiseman passes as a decent enough child actor, even though his facial expressions rarely change to match his lines or tone of voice. Finally, the movie's themes and aspirations reach beyond the typical "haunted house" formula, and the movie's intended statement reaches far deeper than most horror films attempt to go. Within this theme, the movie occasionally hits moments of emotional sincerity, as Amelia's situation strikes home for many.
But The Babadook just doesn't work. The movie was certainly mis- marketed as a scare-your-pants-off horror flick, but that's truly the least of the movie's problems. First, despite what William Friedkin would have you believe, The Babadook isn't scary. I don't mean that in an immature "there weren't enough jump scares" sort of way. I mean, it's the type of movie that you can watch alone with the lights off and not have any trouble going to sleep immediately afterwards. The movie maintains a steady sense of dread, but the dread never culminates into anything resembling horror. Without going into deep detail to avoid spoilers, the movie lacks a scary punch for many reasons, one of which is a character disconnect that I'll address later. *Mild spoilers follow in this paragraph!* Additionally, the monster isn't even remotely convincing (partially due to its tie-in with the theme). The movie's budget limits the actual Babadook to a monster that is almost goofy, with claymation- esque movement and scarecrow features. The monster never inflicts physical harm, and the audience never gets the sense that he actually can.
Despite its lack of scares, The Babadook may have worked with its brooding atmosphere if the plot itself held surprises to grip the audience in a way horror usually does not. Unfortunately, Kent avoids surprising the audience in favor of fully embracing her theme. While the theme is somewhat emotionally resonant, it's not even a tiny bit creative. The average moviegoer can guess the monster's thematic purpose within the first minute of discovering Amelia's situation, and every plot point along the way strengthens this guessed purpose. The theme overpowers all of the movie's other elements from the opening frame onwards, leaving many viewers an hour into the movie saying, "I get it. No, really, I get it. Move on". The audience's invested interest is wasted along with the movie's potential because Kent ditches narrative surprises and chooses to rely and hammer on a frequently uninteresting theme into the minds of viewers. Repeatedly.
Even without scares and with narrative simplicity, The Babadook still had a chance to succeed as a dark and brooding drama. Kent squanders this potential too, however, by writing both the leads in the most bizarrely unlikable fashion imaginable. Obviously, not every film needs to have lovable or even relatable characters, but dramas built upon emotional resonance certainly need such characters to some degree as anchors for audience involvement. The first half of the film is framed from the mother's state of mind and, therefore, viewers are meant to become increasingly frustrated and annoyed with Samuel's behavior, if not straight-up hateful towards him. Although frequently loving towards his mother, clearly protective, and obviously damaged by his father's absence, Samuel truly earns the audience's distaste. It's hard to like a 6-year-old problem-child who frequently disobeys, mouths off, fails to interact with other characters properly, and CONSTANTLY yells for his mother. The mother may bear with her son's behavior as a loving parental figure should, but the audience has very little motivation to do the same. *Spoilers ahead!* But even more problematically, the second half adopts Amelia as the villain and a source of terror as she embraces the monster of her anguish. This leaves the audience without anyone to truly fear for, as Amelia acts increasingly irrational and violent. The most fear we feel relates to our concern for the puppy and the old lady who knocks at the door. The conflict is disturbing, but not surprising or frightening, and we just can't come to care deeply about the child in danger or the mother who continues to put him there.
Finally, the last 20 minutes display a dip in screen writing as the final confrontation crosses the line into the ridiculous, both visually and plot-wise. The ending concerning the monster is bizarre, and the resolution between the characters is unconvincing at best (*spoiler* we're supposed to buy that Amelia and Samuel suddenly understand each other completely and are the best of friends following that finale? Really?). But even by then, it's too late. The Babadook has sunk under the weight of its flaws and is confined to the dungeons of both failed drama and failed horror.