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‘The Boogeyman’ review: Old-school horror, modern metaphor

By May 25, 2023No Comments5 min read
A photo still of the movie THE BOOGEYMAN. Sophie Thatcher as Sadie Harper stands in a dark room holding a lighter.

Directed by Rob Savage, The Boogeyman adapts Stephen King’s 1973 short story into an updated, but familiar supernatural fright fest.

Being afraid of the dark and “The Boogeyman” goes as far back as human beings themselves. Take your pick of a global mythology and you’ll probably find all manner of similar bedtime stories featuring terrible creatures that will eat your children if you let them run off by themselves while you’re not paying attention. We can’t see into the dark, so our imagination conjures up the absolute worst-case scenarios. So it’s actually quite a bold swing to see a new movie like The Boogeyman actually let its feature creature take some kind of visible shape.

That’s just the sort of horror movie The Boogeyman is, to be clear. It’s less about fear of what we don’t see and instead about fearing what we know and understand but are too stuck in mental mud to reckon with. In other words, it’s yet another modern horror flick about grief, and we can thank a lot of movies like Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook kickstarting (or re-kickstarting) this saturated trope during the mid 20teens.

Of course, The Boogeyman adapts from a much older framework than the likes of so-called elevated horror. It’s based on Stephen King’s 1973 short story and was announced in 2018 but eventually scrapped a year later due to Disney acquiring Fox. 20th Century Studios ultimately brought it back into the light with Rob Savage as director and Scott Beck, Bryan Woods, and Mark Heyman behind the screenplay. And thanks to positive test screenings, it narrowly avoided a direct-to-Hulu release.

A photo still of THE BOOGEYMAN. Vivien Lyra Blair as Sawyer Harper holds a nightlight ball in the darkness.

“When there are scary things we don’t understand, our minds try to fill in the blanks.”

Like many of Savage’s short films and two most recent features, The Boogeyman mixes primal horror filmmaking techniques with modern commentary. Host (2020) was a tight, terrifying take on Zoom calls, while his less successful follow-up Dashcam attempted a similar finger-on-the-pulse meta-analysis of livestreaming and influencer culture. By contrast, The Boogeyman is his most back-to-basics feature yet, relying far less on surprising hooks as premise and instead focusing all its energy on the fundamentals. It mostly succeeds.

The film follows two daughters of a single father struggling with the recent loss of their mother. The eldest, Sadie (Sophie Thatcher, Yellowjackets) wants nothing more than to talk openly about her grief with her father, Will (Chris Messina, Air). But even though Will is literally a psychiatrist — one of the few plot elements carried over from the short story — he struggles to be the one on the other side of the couch. The youngest daughter, Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair, Obi-Wan Kenobi) puts on a more resilient front about the loss but also suffers from a severe phobia of the dark, a fear the audience can help share in since the movie literally opens with a child being snatched up by something, or someone, going bump in the night.

A boogeyman movie that’s actually scary?

The father of that ill-fated child, Lester (David Dastmalchian, Dune), confronts Will as a patient, and that’s when things start to go wrong. The “boogeyman” creature apparently infects its targets like a disease, sort of like a mix of It Follows and Relic, the latter particularly invoked by imagery of black mold veins spreading wherever the creature goes. The monster or whatever it is begins to terrify Sawyer, only able to maneuver in the darkness, but with some other jester tricks that again borrow from It Follows. Finding out what this creature really is and how to stop it mostly falls to Sadie, specifying the grief metaphor into one about how older siblings have to step up in broken homes, despite them still being in a raw, coming-of-age state.

A photo still of the movie THE BOOGEYMAN. Sadie Harper, played by Sophie Thatcher, holds up a lighter in a dark room. Chris Messina as Will Harper stands to Sadie's left holding Vivien Lyra Blair as Sawyer Harper in fear.

So yes, you’ve probably seen this movie before, or several movies quite like it. The Darkness Falls angle of characters having to move around light sources, a stubborn parental figure, unexplainable supernatural occurrences, it’s all there. But The Boogeyman pulls off serious tension and scare tactics in spite of its derivative elements. Maybe because it’s purposefully drawing from elemental ideas in the first place and executing them well. There’s a what-you-see-is-what-you-get mentality from scene to scene.

A meta-mix of other modern horror movies.

The creature in question is genuinely terrifying in how it can rapidly move, take on the voices of others, and follow you just about anywhere. Just like grief! But what works simply works. The sisters are likable, probably because they’re sassy and headstrong, rather than one-note and relentlessly meek.

Even the stubborn parental figure, Will, has glimpses of the lightness he once shared with his family, just begging to come out more. He’s not just a constant sad sack. It really is nice when characters (or victims) in horror movies are allowed set pieces where they’re simply hanging out and enjoying each other’s company. It only adds to the suspense for what’s to come, though The Boogeyman does rely a bit too heavily on repeated scenes of characters slowly coming to realize what’s happening to them. The saving grace is that Savage gets out when the getting is good at 99 minutes.

The bottom line.

The Boogeyman isn’t the best at anything it’s trying to do as a horror movie, but it’s also not trying to be the best at anything. It’s not trying to scare you for the sake of scaring you, and it’s not preaching its message or claiming itself to be some overly profound dogma. It simply is. And that limitation and lack of innovation is both what holds it back and what strangely carries it forward as a functional and effective horror movie recommendation for most horror movie fans, not just fanatics. But even they might find themselves scared of the dark again once the screen fades to black.

The Boogeyman opens in theaters on June 2. Watch the trailer here.

Images courtesy of 20th Century Studios. Photos by Patti Perret.

  • THE BOOGEYMAN - 7/10
Jon Negroni

Jon is one of the co-founders of InBetweenDrafts and our resident film editor. He also hosts the podcasts Cinemaholics, Mad Men Men, and Rookie Pirate Radio. He doesn't sleep, essentially.

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