The Boogeyman Review: Classic Stephen King Story Makes for Soft Horror

Movies
the-boogeyman-review:-classic-stephen-king-story-makes-for-soft-horror

In 2005, screenwriter and author Blake Snyder coined the term “save the cat” when referring to the beat in a story—usually very early on—in which a protagonist does something so admirable it instantly engenders audience sympathy and trust. Think Aladdin giving his only loaf of bread to two street urchins in the Disney movie, or Indiana Jones saving Alfred Molina from spiders, even after Molina’s buddy already betrayed him moments earlier, in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

While watching the opening moments of The Boogeyman, this concept popped into my head, as did the realization that there’s a reversal of it. Consider: Audiences as of late have been inundated with horror movies which want you to know immediately they’re playing for keeps, and their titular monster is the genuine thing. Hence the scene where a baby is stolen and sacrificed to the Devil in The Witch and a little boy with a paper sailboat gets too close to a storm drain in It. In Nope, you only hear a child’s begging before the sickening thud. The idea goes back further, too, a la Jaws (1975) and Frankenstein (1931), but horror filmmakers have become particularly insistent these days that they’re prepared to Kill the Kid.

The Boogeyman begins much the same way by introducing us to a young infant girl who’s been tucked in for another restless night of crying by her exhausted parents (David Dastmalchian and Marin Ireland). Woe unto mommy and daddy, however, for they do not realize what pitiless shadows actually lurk in their babe’s closet. Sure enough, before the title card even drops, a leathery, clawed hand wraps itself around the crib, and a sudden shriek hideously stops as blood dribbles into frame.

Yes, writer-director Rob Savage is unafraid to kill the kid in his first Hollywood-produced horror movie. At a glance, it also appears to be a confirmation that despite transitioning to Hollywood fare, Savage is the same subversive voice who made the recent cult darlings Host and Dashcam. And at least when it comes to crafting some tense jumps and jolts, The Boogeyman is very much a glossy successor to those efforts. Yet I cannot help but be taken back to the disturbing opening which insisted it is willing to go there. And maybe it is. But in a film which otherwise is only too happy to play it safe in every other sense, this opening feels less like an insidious table-setter than it does a modern genre box being checked. It’s a beat in a by-the-numbers haunted house flick.

Based on a short story in horror maestro Stephen King’s Night Shift collection, The Boogeyman (2023) exists as a synthesis of vintage King. In addition to the spectral fear of children in danger, the film reimagines the catch-all term for night terror monsters—the Boogeyman—into something ancient and primal. It’s a beast, a demon, an entity that walks the line between the metaphysical and tactile, and which has apparently existed since time immemorial. And it feeds on the fear of children in the dark.

That’s at least the conclusion reached by Lester Billings (Dastmalchian), who after the opening has become a bereft and forlorn father as he sneaks into the home of psychiatrist Will Harper (Chris Messina). Lester is coming to find a shoulder to cry on, but when he explains to the shrink that all of his children were taken by the Boogeyman, one by one, the doctor is ready to call the cops.

Unfortunately, the police do not arrive before Lester is found hanging inside one of Will’s closets. Worse still, news of this tragedy is just the latest trauma to be inflicted upon his teenage daughter Sadie (Sophie Thatcher) and wee Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair), who also has been experiencing night terrors in the dark ever since their mother died in a car accident.

You can see where this is going.

These are the primary elements inherited from King’s story, but Savage—working from a script by Mark Heyman and A Quiet Place writers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods—expands the tale, making it Sadie’s nightmare instead of her father’s. Sadie is isolated and lonely at high school; the mopey kid with the dead mom, which the mean girls (inexplicably) find hilarious. She is also the one who does most of the parenting for Sawyer every night when the younger daughter insists a monster in her closet is opening and slamming her door. Soon Sadie is also seeing dark shadows move as something undeniable appears to be coming for her and her little sister.

With such an archetypal structure, plot is obviously less important than tone and scares, and on the most basic level, The Boogeyman provides both competently enough. Operating as something akin to a jump-scare delivery system, the picture creates about a dozen well-designed “boos” which will cause viewers to either hold their breath or laugh expectantly, depending on their disposition. Is the thing itself actually scary though? It probably depends on your familiarity with the genre going in.

As a PG-13 horror flick, The Boogeyman has a decidedly softer touch than Savage’s previous films or, indeed, its eerie opening. Despite featuring a structure that remarkably resembles last year’s creepier Smile, right down to the story acting as a metaphor for trauma, guilt, and grief, The Boogeyman lacks the existential dread or unrelenting despair of that previous work. This distinction turns out to be as pronounced as that between an R-rated picture and one assigned the theoretically more lucrative PG-13.

Despite its sinister premise, The Boogeyman seems a bit spooked in its own right, nervous about rocking the boat or alienating its target audience, which is presumably closer in age to Sadie and Harper than adult horror aficionados who saw Smile in theaters—or for that matter the far more daring PG-13 horror movie about a transmissive evil entity, The Ring.

The Boogeyman is a solid gateway chiller for 12 year olds at a sleepover, and will be the scourge of middle schoolers dipping a toe in the genre. In a darkened theater though, adults might instead find themselves wondering about film scripting theory, or why essentially every set piece is the same: poor little Sawyer is somehow, again, alone in a darkened room waiting to be attacked. (You might even second-guess why characters keep finding themselves in such a situation.)

The acting is uniformly good, with Messina continuing a strong year after stealing scenes from Matt Damon in Air. The standouts though are Thatcher and Blair, with the latter being especially impressive at so young an age at conveying a lifetime of impending therapy bills on her pint-sized face.

Her terror is never fully spread to the audience, however. I’ll admit to jumping a few times, leaning forward at others, but like the fake blood pooling behind the next door in a haunted house, you always know what’s coming and may find yourself chuckling along as much as tensing. And for an experience that pretends it’s as grim as that opening, being able to spot the safety wheels is a little disappointing.

The Boogeyman is in theaters on June 2.

The post The Boogeyman Review: Classic Stephen King Story Makes for Soft Horror appeared first on Den of Geek.

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