A 50-year-old Stephen King short story inspires this well-cast, emotionally astute but also often-generic dance with grief's nightmares.
June 01, 2023
Teenagers are savage in The Boogeyman, specifically to Yellowjackets standout Sophie Thatcher, but none of them literally take a bite. Grief helps usher a stalking dark force to a distraught family's door; however, that malevolent presence obviously doesn't share The Babadook's moniker. What can and can't be seen haunts this dimly lit film, and yet this isn't Bird Box, which co-star Vivien Lyra Blair also appeared in. And a distressed man visits a psychiatrist to talk about his own losses, especially the otherworldly monster who he claims preyed upon his children, just as in Stephen King's 1973 short story also called The Boogeyman — but while this The Boogeyman is based on that The Boogeyman, which then made it into the author's 1978 Night Shift collection that gave rise to a packed closet full of fellow movie adaptations including Children of the Corn, Graveyard Shift and The Lawnmower Man, this flick uses the horror maestro's words as a mere beginning.
On the page and the screen alike, Lester Billings (David Dastmalchian, Boston Strangler) seeks therapist Will Harper's (Chris Messina, Air) assistance, reclining on his couch to relay a tragic tale. As the new patient talks, he isn't just shaken and shellshocked — he's a shadow of a person. He's perturbed by what loiters where light doesn't reach, in fact, and by what he's certain has been lurking in his own home. Here, he couldn't be more adamant that "the thing that comes for your kids when you're not paying attention" did come for his. And, the film Lester has chosen his audience carefully, because Will's wife recently died in a car accident, leaving his daughters Sadie (Thatcher) and Sawyer (Blair) still struggling to cope. On the day of this fateful session, the two girls have just returned to school for the first time, only for Sadie to sneak back when her so-called friends cruelly can't manage any sympathy.
Whether you call it the boogeyman, boogie monster or bogeyman IRL, the titular creature doesn't need naming; everyone knows the concept. Movie buffs definitely do, thanks to 1980's The Boogeyman, and its sequels in 1983 and 1994 — plus the unrelated 2005 release Boogeyman, as well as its own 2007 and 2008 follow-ups. None of those past pictures have anything to do with King, making this one, which arrives 50 years after his unnerving prose first hit print, the only one to do the honours. Its main figures are just as familiar with the mythic entity with a penchant for petrifying young souls in the black of night from beneath their beds and in their cupboards, but purely as fiction, with ten-year-old Sawyer unable to sleep without lights on, her wardrobe checked and under her mattress given a thorough once-over.
Indeed, early in The Boogeyman, Will asks Sawyer how she manages to slumber each night beneath such a glow. While her answer is standard for any precocious kid, the question itself hangs heavily in the air. Her bedroom twinkles from several sources of light — one of which is a giant lit-up globe that she sleeps with, and can also handily roll along bright corridors when the need arises, which it will — but the scene is noticeably far from radiant. It's a sight that says plenty about The Boogeyman, albeit unintentionally. The studio debut of Host and Dashcam director Rob Savage, the film is so concerned with evoking an unsettling mood in its look, tone and emotions first and foremost that it doesn't flinch for a second when what a character is saying contrasts so glaringly with what's being shown.
Scary movies are about feeling, of course. At the core of the horror genre is the need to work through the things that go bump and jump in the evening, usually in our hearts and minds, and springing from existential woes about mortality — plus the chilling sensation that can't be shaken when what gets our hairs standing on end isn't at all logical. Accordingly, while the way that The Boogeyman handles Sawyer's bedroom doesn't prove so bright in multiple senses, Savage is a convincingly atmospheric filmmaker here (a trait he also demonstrated with his 2020 breakout Host, only for it to vanish without a trace in 2021's awful and obnoxious Dashcam). With cinematographer Eli Born (Hellraiser) consistently infusing every room with bleakness, Savage knows how to let dread and terror permeate. That's what navigating mourning is like, after all, as sits at the core of the emotionally astute script by A Quiet Place and 65's Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, alongside Black Swan and The Skeleton Twins' Mark Heyman.
A feature can be as layered as strings upon strings of fairy lights and equally as conventional as a regular incandescent bulb, though. The Boogeyman, with its generic title, swings between both extremes. It understands how unshakeable the pain of losing someone is, and how bereavement seeps into every space it can. As Smile did in 2022, it also appreciates hurt and torment as a contagion as it spills from one household to the next. The Boogeyman is well-versed in the mechanics of jump scares, but those jolts also become routine quickly. Its high school bullies can't hold a candle to Carrie, it haunted houses aren't on The Shining's level and there's a touch of Stranger Things to its glimpses of its long-limbed, sharp-clawed namesake. And, yes, Thatcher brings Yellowjackets to mind, the whole premise gets The Babadook bubbling up, and the family-in-peril setup brings up Bird Box alongside Beck and Woods' A Quiet Place.
Whether The Boogeyman is resonating with earned and earnest emotion or leaning overtly into genre tropes, it's a smartly hushed affair with expert sound design; in life's worst moments, sometimes only whispers echo no matter how loudly you want to scream. Savage's intriguing- and involving-enough mixed bag is also a better film thanks to its three key cast members, even working with thinly written characters. As her breakout TV role has already demonstrated, Thatcher is a talent on the rise. She's particularly skilled at portraying complicated teens forced to weather unspeakable horrors, then find a way to persevere. Although her panicked face fills the screen often, Blair's Sawyer is never just an alarmed avatar for the audience or a reminder of their own childhood fears, while the always-watchable Messina makes a shrink dad with trouble processing his own trauma feel believable.
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