One of the things that Rob Savage’s The Boogeyman has going for it is that it’s often too dark to see what’s happening. That’s not being flippant — okay, it is a little, but it’s also an aesthetic choice which serves the film well. Based on a Stephen King short story first published in 1973, The Boogeyman makes manifest the ill-defined yet universally understood presence of the film’s title that exists in the minds of small children, hiding in their closets, crawling under their beds, and necessitating a nightlight. It’s a form of terror intrinsically tied to the sense of the unknown, and in turning the conceit into a typical creature feature, it presents something of a problem once the monster — a computer-generated nasty primarily defined by its long spindly arms and exposed teeth — is drawn into the light and revealed in its underwhelming form. So the film avoids doing so for as long as humanly possible, employing deep shadows for cover, obscuring our vantage point by utilizing reflective surfaces or indicating the creature’s presence by reducing it to a pair of beady, photoluminescent eyes peering out from the dark. It’s an appreciably low-tech approach that props up this otherwise derivative fright factory longer than it should.
When we meet the Harper family, they’re still grieving the recent death of the family’s matriarch in a car accident. Dad, Will (Chris Messina), is a therapist who plies his practice out the family’s home yet can’t bring himself to talk to his two daughters about their shared sadness. Moody adolescent Sadie (Sophie Thatcher of Yellowjackets) clings to her mother’s memory, strolling through her art gallery, pawing through her belongings, and wearing her dresses to school, where she struggles to ingratiate herself to a clique of mean girls. And then there’s tween Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair), who still sleeps with the lights on and asks her dad to search her bedroom for monsters every night before she goes to sleep. One day, while the girls are at school, a drawn-looking man named Lester Billings (character actor and “twitchy guy” extraordinaire, David Dastmalchian) makes an unscheduled appearance at the Harpers’ door, pleading for the good doctor Will to speak with him. Lester, we learn, has lost multiple children in relatively quick succession and believes a malevolent force is responsible for their deaths. He comes armed with a drawing of the creature which, along with his shaky demeanor, doesn’t make Will any less concerned, leading him to sneak away to phone the police. While Will is downstairs making a call, unaware that Sadie has come home early from school, Lester sneaks off to a closet and appears to hang himself — although not before trashing the art gallery and putting up a loud fight against… something.
In the grand tradition of gypsy curses, monkey paws, and evil video tapes, Lester — through his actions — has foisted the evil manifestation which tormented him and his family onto the unwitting Harpers. Attracted to sadness and vulnerability (yes, this is yet another horror film that’s not-so-secretly about trauma), repelled by light and possessing the uncanny ability to mimic the voice of those it comes into contact with — an unnerving instance of the creature toying with its prey, even imitating deceased loved ones, that the film largely squanders — the monster sets up residence in Sawyer’s closet, its presence denoted by black mold-like markings creeping across the walls. With the nightly encounters escalating (and increasingly less open to interpretation or claims that it’s all in a scared young girl’s head) Sadie begins to investigate Lester’s fantastical story, breaking into his dilapidated, although not quite abandoned, home in search of answers on how to rid herself of a menace which is literally trying to drain her family of their lifeforce before killing them and moving on to another household.
Starting with its generic title on down, there’s something rather boilerplate to how this film’s been conceived. Adapted by Mark Heyman and the writing team of Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (the latter two knowing plenty about fraught family dynamics and crummy-looking ghoulies, having written the first A Quiet Place), The Boogeyman retains many of King’s more irksome tendencies, including marginalizing his adult characters (Messina inexplicably disappears for half the film, despite most of it taking place in the middle of the night in his home) and embracing a squishy spirituality. There is, thankfully, no Lovecraftian mythology or attempts to explore the monster’s physiology; it’s merely a nondescript evil that can appear anywhere at any time (assuming the lighting conditions are suitable) and induce a jump scare or twenty. But the film’s stabs at exploring grief are at best glancing and at worst a cynical attempt to latch onto a horror trend which has long overstayed its welcome. It paints Messina’s psychiatrist as a particularly ineffectual figure — as both a therapist and a father to two heartbroken children — without really considering his motivations, while Thatcher’s attempts to come to terms with her mother’s death keep running headlong into almost comically outsized bullies at school (another moldy King trope).
And yet, in the spirit of it’s the singer not the song, there’s still much to admire in Savage’s direction. A British filmmaker whose most recent films, Host and Dashcam, were pandemic-shot exercises in desktop cinema and found footage, respectively, Savage brings an independent filmmaker’s sense of ingenuity to a big studio assignment. His Boogeyman makes fine use of off-screen space, inhuman sound design, and misdirection of our eyes to wring scares out of a familiar scenario. An early sequence set in a child psychiatrist’s office, where Sawyer is attempting to overcome her fear of the dark, introduces a maniacal, flashing hellfire red light that reveals the monster in fleeting glimpses as it crawls down from the ceiling. A later scene finds Sawyer playing video games on a large HD TV while sitting in the dark, illuminating the creature in the screen’s reflection as it attempts to sneak up behind her by triggering colorful combat that fills the room with light (if one must integrate product placement into a production, this is the way to do it). The film’s central conceit repeatedly forces the viewer to search out the darkness for dangers, teleporting us back to a time when a pile of clothing at the foot of the bed might have been something that would reach out and try and eat you. If the film overdoes the gag of something lunging out from the shadows, accompanied by a scare sting on the soundtrack — which, to be clear, it very much does — it can’t be denied that it remains remarkably effective. The Boogeyman doesn’t amount to much more than a haunted house ride, but that doesn’t mean the approach is without its own rewards.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 22.