Oh, look what we’ve got here. A movie that got picked up by Fox just before the company got sold off to Disney, so the Mouse shunted it to the side for a while. Then Disney decided to make use of what table scraps they had and figured that Hulu would be a great place to drop this weird little horror film they had inadvertently picked up. This should sound familiar, we’ve already seen this play out numerous times in the past three years.
But then we have The Boogeyman, co-written and exec-produced by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (the same chuckleheads who brought us 65), adapted from a short story by Stephen King. After Disney picked it back up, the script was passed to Mark Heyman (he of Black Swan and The Skeleton Twins), with Shudder alumnus Rob Savage directing. The Mouse was all set to dump it onto Hulu until rave reviews from test screenings — and a glowing endorsement from Stephen King himself — got the film a theatrical release.
Not to say the film is a masterpiece that necessarily demands to be seen on the big screen, but it was the right call.
This is the story of the Harper family, with the teenage Sadie and the grade-school Sawyer (respectively played by Sophie Thatcher and Vivien Lyra Blair), in addition to their father (Will, played by Chris Messina). Will’s wife suddenly died in a car accident roughly a month ago, and all three of them are still reeling from the loss.
Will is burying himself in his work as a therapist, focusing on other people’s problems so he won’t have to talk about what he and his daughters are going through. Sadie is having a hard time getting back into the flow of high school, because of course there are one-dimensional bullies, this is a Stephen King story! As for Sawyer, her perennial fear of the dark has kicked into full-blown obsessive phobia and she’s screaming about seeing monsters in the dark.
Because it’s that kind of movie, nobody believes her until enough weird shit starts happening.
Enter Lester Billings (David Dastmalchian, playing comfortably well within his endearingly creepy wheelhouse), who comes in to Will’s home office while grieving for the sudden concurrent deaths of his three children. The kicker is that while everyone thinks Lester murdered his own kids (with no evidence to back that up), Lester is convinced that his children were killed by some strange unknowable monster. Lester promptly drops out of the film under peculiar circumstances, weird shit starts happening, and we’re off to the races.
To start with, I’m no therapist myself, but I understand that it’s common practice for therapists to regularly see their own therapists, if only to cope with all the shit they have to hear on the job and make sure they’re in the right headspace to help others. Perhaps more importantly, I’m not sure how it’s possible to maintain a healthy and professional distance when the doctor is literally inviting his patients into his home. I’m not saying the guy deserved to have his shit wrecked by accidentally inviting the demon into his own home, I’m just saying a bit of common sense might have gone a long way here.
Speaking of common sense, I’m sorry to say that this is yet another horror movie with way too many scenes in which the characters knowingly go into pitch-dark spaces. Granted, there are some times when the filmmakers try to get around this by way of light bulbs going out, switches failing to work, and so on. Even so, given that the Boogeyman is demonstrably averse to light and the characters know as much, it wears on my patience and sympathy how many times the characters never even try to avoid dark spaces or go into one without a reliable light source.
But of course this is a threadbare trope in horror films. For that matter, this is a film that uses a strange demonic evil as a metaphor for grief, mental health, and other such psychological ailments. This has become an alarmingly common trend in recent horror films. (Smile and The Night House both come immediately to mind.)
For that matter, Stephen King is well-known for rehashing his own tropes and ideas in his work, and this is no exception. Consider that the Boogeyman targets children, taking on the voice and appearance of other people (mostly those known and trusted by their intended victims), the better to lure in their prey. It’s outright stated that the Boogeyman plays with their food, scaring them as “seasoning” before eating them. Oh, and of course the Boogeyman is an amorphous multi-legged monstrosity who abhors the light. No two ways about it, what we’ve got here is a cheap knockoff of It (ie: Pennywise’s true form).
There’s nothing in this movie that’s new or innovative or surprising… and yet it somehow works.
It’s a strange paradox that horror depends so heavily on novelty and surprises, yet there are some things so primal that they will always inspire fear. An inanimate object moving of its own accord will never not be creepy. If a door is meant to stay shut, watching it swing open or get busted down will always feel like a terrible violation of safety and a portent of some horrible invading danger. The fear of some unseen predator lurking in the pitch black night is so deeply rooted into our DNA that darkness will always be scary on some level. The fear of sudden and unavoidable death, the pain that comes with losing a loved one, the compulsive need to watch a small child 24/7 for fear of what danger could befall them the second anyone turns away… these are all terrors so universal and undeniable that they’re hard-wired directly into our very souls.
The film uses all of this to make for effective horror, presented with some remarkably clever edits, strategic camera placement, and judicious use of jump scares. But the true secret ingredient here is in the heartfelt exploration of dealing with grief and the loss of a loved one, dovetailing that with themes of overcoming fear and defeating a monster. Again, none of this is new, but the cast freaking sells it. Case in point: I genuinely love how Sadie copes with the loss of her mother by stepping up to be a surrogate mother figure for her little sister. It’s a damn shame the film didn’t do more with that, but what we get is sweetly touching.
That said, I’d be remiss not to point out the scene early in the third act, when Sadie brings all her dumb little buddies and bullies to the house. Every last one of them had a dotted line across their neck, the filmmakers had a golden opportunity to up the body count, but they didn’t take it. Your mileage may vary as to whether this movie needed more kills or gorier kills, but I confess to some disappointment that a band of hapless teenage dipshits couldn’t even make themselves useful as cannon fodder.
As with so many lesser Stephen King stories, The Boogeyman doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but delivers a perfectly solid and functional wheel. It’s a serviceable horror film that makes good use of deep-seated primal fears, while offering heartfelt performances to explore poignant themes. Alas, the past few years have been an extraordinary time for horror cinema, and we’re living in a time when countless filmmakers are experimenting with the genre to innovative and mind-blowing results. The Boogeyman might have passed muster six or seven years ago (read: Before Get Out was a thing and The Conjuring had megafranchise delusions), but it’s not enough to stand out in the current state of the genre.
I can recommend it as a fun disposable horror film to pass 100 minutes, but that’s about it.