You know the fear of The Boogeyman. Alone in your room. A bump in the night. The darkness of your closet is foreboding. The texture of it is wrong. You tell yourself everything is fine; nothing lurks in the shadows. But the sisters at the center of this latest Stephen King adaptation know the horror of how wrong you are.
Inspired by King’s short story of the same name, The Boogeyman focuses on the Harper sisters, 10-year-old Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair) and teen Sadie (Yellowjackets‘ standout Sophie Thatcher), who are reeling from the recent death of their mother. Grappling with grief is hard enough with a father (Chris Messina) who rigorously rationalizes instead of sharing his feelings. But things go from tense to terrifying for this fracturing family when a haunted man (David Dastmalchian) wanders in, bringing a ravenous darkness with him.
The haunted house subgenre gets a fresh coat of blood and horror with this spine-tingling thrill ride driven by grief, rage, and fear.
The Boogeyman comes from the twisted minds behind A Quiet Place and Black Swan.
Stephen King might be the biggest name in horror attached to The Boogeyman. But its script was a collaboration between Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, who dreamed up the nightmarishly silent scenario of the hit A Quiet Place, with a finishing coat from Mark Heyman, best known for having a hand in the screenplay for Darren Aranofsky‘s celebrated, surreal, and cerebral ballerina fever dream Black Swan. Collectively, they take a bold leap from King’s short story, making the movie less a direct adaptation and more a sequel.
You see, in “The Boogeyman,” King plunks his reader down with Lester Billings (Dastmalchian) a family man whose children have died one by one at the hands of the eponymous monster. He recounts his unbelievable tale of woe to a therapist, Dr. Harper. But in this Boogeyman, Billings and his family are first-act fodder, victims presented to establish the incredible power and rampant cruelty of the creature, without revealing its horrid appearance.
It’s like the cold open in Jaws. But The Boogeyman breaks from that iconic creature feature in a major way. Rather than hiding its monster to allow our imaginations to brew with terrible possibilities, director Rob Savage generously — or sadistically — splashes his creature’s features in flashes throughout the film. Shockingly, it doesn’t get old or remotely less scary.
The Boogeyman confirms the talents of a polarizing but rising star in horror cinema.
In the summer of 2020, Rob Savage tore onto the horror scene with a shockingly timely tale of terror. While many of us were in lockdown, he made a mesmerizing movie about this terrible moment. Host hit streaming, revealing the riveting and scary-as-hell story of a group of friends plagued by a paranormal evil — all because of a Zoom séance gone wrong.
At the time, I noted in my review that the 56-minute film was pulling from plenty of horror tropes, but masterfully so. I wrote for Pajiba, “Each [jump scare] gives a jolt to the system that left me throwing my hands to my mouth to cover the ragged yelps that barreled out … I can’t wait to see what he does next.”
However, I absolutely loathed what came next.
Where Host highlighted the mounting fears of pandemic isolation, DashCam crudely mocked them, centering on an American anti-vaxxer raising hell in locked-down London. As a found footage movie, it was tired and incoherent. But, like I said in my review for IGN, “As follow-up to the fiercely frightening Host, Dashcam is a major failure … not just unoriginal, it’s sloppy, soulless, and sickening.”
So, it was with trepidation that I sat down for The Boogeyman. The teaser was promising, teasing exactly the kind of haunted house creepery that’s my personal frightful favorite. Thankfully, paired with a trio of writers — and King’s solid inspiration point — Savage soars with The Boogeyman, focusing not on provocative plot points or politics, but on creating scares that are sickeningly satisfying.
The Boogeyman borrows from The Babadook, and it works, mostly.
Tied to the loss of the girls’ mother, the boogeyman is — like his iconic cousin the Babadook — a menacing manifestation of grief. Both figures focus their wrath on a small, adorable child, who has violent outbursts in response. Young Sawyer may piss herself in the dark, but she’ll also harshly kick her sister in the shin for an assumed slight. Such details make the Harper girls less the doll-faced innocents most often afflicted in haunted house horror, and more flesh-and-blood modern heroines, who we are encouraged to relate to and root for, not pity. These kids will rage against the dying of the light, and knowing that makes The Boogeyman more exciting, because the inevitable battle brews stomach-churning tension.
But the best scares come from the reveals of the Boogeyman. It lurks in the shadows, but it has weight, setting it apart from ghosts who slink about in silence. It galumphs from Sawyer’s closet to under her bed, knocking her throw rug askew in the process. Such details prime our nerves for the scare, goosebumps popping up in anticipation! As she leans down, the camera whips to follow her sweet little head below the bed’s frame. A flashlight, fashioned like a glowing moon, is rolled under the bed, a clever tool for a kid who is no fool. Maybe — within this domestic cavern — you expect a flash of something vaguely spooky, suggestive of monster. But what Savage and his design team have manifested is a gnarled critter of flesh, bone, and darkness that made me scream, loud and hard, every time it showed its freaky face.
Flickering candles, a flashing red bulb, a string of flickering Christmas lights — Savage finds a slew of ways to throw shadows in motion, carrying the threat of the encroaching villain. He got me every time. I can’t remember the last time I screamed like this in a theater. Full disclosure, after that first bedtime scare, I even picked my feet off the ground of the theater, pulling my legs up onto the seat, away from the uncertain shadows below.
Admittedly, the metaphor of this monster feels like an echo of the critically heralded original horror of The Babadook, even with its own cryptic lore established. The plot focused intensely on the sisters is thin and a bit brittle, seeming to forget they have a father for curious swaths of screentime. Host was similarly referential and simple. And in both cases, I’m not bothered by the borrowing, because I was so caught up in the ride of these ridiculously entertaining and scorchingly scary movies.
Savage has been hit, then miss. But with The Boogeyman, he confirms his skills for suspense and sensational scares. A pair of sisters who aren’t precious, but are instead validly volatile, ground the supernatural tale in a familiar reality. Blair brings an authentic flare of childish tantrums and terror, but Thatcher shoulders the film as a teen grappling not only with angst and grief, but also with the all-too-real limitations of her fumbling father.
Amid the scares, these two young actresses create a bond that binds us to them emotionally, making their peril all the more electrifying. But the special sauce that makes this movie one of the most fun and thrilling of the year is the combination of a truly unnerving creature design paired with Savage’s downright savage employment of it. A predator whose territory is darkness, this boogeyman is the definition of nightmare fuel. A chittering sound design makes its call uniquely alarming as it echoes across a theater, assaulting our ears. Watching it scurry, lunge, and roar is exactly the kind of twisted treat horror fans yearn for. Go see for yourself, if you dare.
The Boogeyman opens in theaters June 2.