There are few fears more universal than one from a monster under the bed or in our closet, and there are few filmmaking techniques more effective than a jump scare. These metaphors collide – effectively, though without much originality – in “The Boogeyman,” a loose adaptation of Stephen King’s 1973 short story of the same name. It features an eponymous menace that appears to have been crafted from the same biological blueprint as the aliens in In their blockbuster “A Quiet Place,” writers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods graft psychological and thematic shorthand of unresolved trauma onto a creature feature, while director Rob Savage (“Dashcam”) rounds the seams between the two with exuberant style and a gritty, clear-eyed, compelling lead performance. From “Yellowjackets” star Sophie Thatcher.
Thatcher plays Sadie Harper, a withdrawn high school student grappling with the recent death of her mother in a car accident. Although Sadie’s father Will (Chris Messina) works as a therapist, he’s too consumed in his grief to provide comfort for her or her little sister Sawyer (Vivian Lyra Blair), who is afraid of the dark. When a man named Lester Billings (David Dastmalchian) shows up unexpectedly at their home telling stories about the hidden deaths of his three children, Will appropriately calls the authorities. Before they can get there, Lester disappears into a closet, apparently committing suicide.
Sadie is present when Will discovers the body, but even then he refers his daughter to Dr. Wheeler (Lisa Gay Hamilton), a grief counselor, rather than discuss her feelings directly. Meanwhile, Sawyer becomes convinced that a creature lurks in the dark corners of her room waiting to devour her after the lights are out. As Sadie tries to navigate this complex series of tragedies, she becomes obsessed with the details of Lester Billings’ life – especially images of an otherworldly entity that she discovers in a notebook he left in her father’s office. She soon becomes convinced that this entity is real, and must find a way to defeat it before she can claim she and the rest of her family as her next victims.
Loss is a powerful catalyst for emotion, so it only makes sense that filmmakers would take advantage of this well to create a strong atmosphere for their stories. But in modern horror cinema, dead parents have become more of a cornerstone of the plot than they were during the heyday of Disney’s hand-drawn animation. Not only did this tendency weaken the setting, but it called for a challenge that writers or directors haven’t met often enough to mix that weight with physical or psychological thrills that pay off comfortably. And so you get a movie like “The Boogeyman,” which begins as a study of a family working through the grief and pain of its members, and ends with a real-life battle to kill the monster that threatens their lives.
Suffice it to say there’s nothing wrong with this twist – and one can almost guarantee that hordes of teens will be excited to watch it unfold on screen. But in a genre that increasingly demands to be taken seriously, a simple proficiency in technique will not take a film to the highest echelons of the canon. Both Beck and Woods have shown that they know how to tap into widely shared, identifiable feelings of vulnerability and longing. Savage keeps his audience on the edges of their seats, staring at every shadow until a monster roars out of it. Together, they fear, worry, and traumatize themselves, but the remnants of their efforts are ephemeral at best.
Their reliance so heavily on the twin mechanisms of world-building and mood-setting further undermines the lasting impact of what could have been beguiling while staying power. Way back in 1978, when John Carpenter offered his role as “The Boogeyman” in the movie Halloween, he understood how scary it was to watch a murdered sociopath carve a path to a clean, bright normal life in the suburbs. By comparison, Savage writes creepy from the morning sunlight and refuses interior lighting unless it somehow casts a dangerous glow on the characters. Meanwhile, Beck and Woods devote plenty of screen time to Sophie’s search for one wholesome expository monologue after another about the Boogeyman’s origins and seem to forget the off-screen members of the Harper family, despite the fact that they spend most of their time in the same house – And they need to be able to hear each other, or even just be near them when loud, violent, screaming incidents happen.
Savage’s confidence behind the camera maintains the film’s intensity even when the connective tissue between plot, subject matter, logic, and tone is tenuous at best. But even working alongside such powerful collaborators as Messina and a young Blair, it is Thatcher who sells the unlikely reality of an old soul that thrives on fear and grief. The young actress plays the role of portraying the emotional fallout of her mother’s death before it descends upon the Harpers, gracefully dancing on the verge of despair and guts, suggesting that Sadie believes she can move on if only she can decipher the legend of the Beast.
Whether or not it leads to the sequel hinted at in its final scenes, Savage’s King adaptation qualifies as one of the best films in history with that title so far, delivering scares beyond its PG-13 rating even if it’s not particularly innovative. Then again, the namesake of one of the oldest and most iconic legends of the past two centuries, why not turn on the hits, from a cinematic perspective, when reviving them for contemporary audiences? Good but not great, The Boogeyman vividly reminds viewers what it’s like to be afraid of the dark – but for better or worse, the effect won’t last once the lights come back on.