THE BOOGEYMAN Review: Come for the Jump Scares, Stay for the Grief Drama

Rob Savage directed the horror thriller, starring Sophie Thatcher, Vivien Lyra Blair, Chris Messina and David Dastmalchian.

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
THE BOOGEYMAN Review: Come for the Jump Scares, Stay for the Grief Drama

The fear of the dark, of what we can’t see and thus what can hurt us (or worse) has been part of our DNA, perhaps literally, since our bipedal hominid ancestors left the safety of climbable trees and forests for the hidden recesses of caves, huddling together for warmth, comfort, and security.

In turn, that once healthy fear of the dark has, over millennia, entered our collective unconscious, not to mention an effective tool to promote subservience, as the “boogeyman” in the English language, a nocturnal, supernatural creature who punishes wayward children and, in the worst instances, devours them for their disobedience.

From a different, if related, perspective, the closet-dwelling boogeyman can be perceived as the by-product of “night terrors” (sleep paralysis), that lingering moment between wakefulness and sleep where active imaginations convert abstract fears of the dark and the unknown into seemingly concrete ones, possessory nighttime visitors of the non-human kind.

Not surprisingly, the boogeyman has been the subject of countless stories, both personal and fictional, chief among them Stephen King’s fright-filled, 1973 story, “The Boogeyman,” published early in his career as a writer in Cavalier magazine and collected five years later in Night Shift. A supernatural horror story involving a skeptical, if empathetic, psychiatrist and a psychologically disintegrating patient, “The Boogeyman” turned – like so many of King’s short stories and novels over the last five decades – on the unreal and supernatural becoming all too real to the characters imprisoned in the stories. “The Boogeyman’s” lasting power rested primarily on its brief if intense, character interactions and a memorably downbeat, chilling ending.

“The Boogeyman” has always seemed ripe for adaptation, if not for the big screen, then for a short anthology series like Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone or even the Steven Spielberg-produced Amazing Stories (where a similar story sent this writer into weeklong nightmares). Eventually, it took the concerted efforts of writers Scott Beck, Bryan Woods (both responsible for the recent misfire, 65, and its exact opposite, The Quiet Place), and Mark Heyman, along with the appropriately named director Rob Savage (Dashcam, Host) and their production company, 21 Laps Entertainment, to expand King’s short story into a big-screen, feature-length adaptation.

The result won’t win any points for originality, but what it does, specifically an overabundance of well-timed, well-choreographed jump scares, delivers exactly on what the marketing promised: Fear of the dark personified, albeit from the comforts of faux-leather backed multiplex theaters.

Very little of King’s compact story makes the jump from page to screen outside of an early, key scene between Will Harper (Chris Messina, Air), a therapist struggling with personal loss and grief, and Lester Billings (David Dastmalchian, The Suicide Squad), a seeming madman who all but invades Harper’s family residence and office to unload an initially unbelievable story involving the gruesome deaths of his own children and the old-school monster-in-a-closet who ripped them away permanently from this plane of existence.

Before long, though, Billings’s ravings turn out to be true and his intrusion into Harper’s life proves costly, bringing the “boogeyman” along with him to terrorize Harper’s children, Sadie (Sophie Thatcher), a bullied teen and surrogate mother/parental figure, and Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair), a sensitive preteen with a borderline unhealthy fear of the dark.

That fear of the dark and everything hiding in the dark, of course, proves to be well founded, as the supernatural menace takes a cruelly playful approach with Sawyer and Sadie, apparently feeding on her fear, grief, and trauma. While Sadie steps up to protect her sister – and in true horror film tradition, actively investigates the origins of the boogeyman to better understand how to defeat it – the elder Harper flounders on a sea of his own grief, incapable of opening himself to his obviously hurting children and overcoming their loss as a family. (The oft-used phrase, “Physician heal thyself,” immediately comes to mind here.)

It’s not exactly deep or even particularly profound, though it does hit on what’s become a common horror trope over the last few years: Grief and trauma as an instant sympathy generator for audiences and an in-universe reason for why a supernatural entity decides to target the central characters.

Whatever its deficiencies on the story or character front, The Boogeyman more than overcomes them through Savage’s skillful exploitation of tried-and-true horror conventions and a trio of performers who bring their level best to an otherwise rote, routine screenplay. To say they elevate the material might sound like an easy fallback (and it might be), but it also happens to be true.

Messina, Thatcher (a breakout on Showtime’s Yellowjackets), and Blair, a preteen talent well-suited to the horror genre, make every plot development, every character beat, and ultimately, every emotion feels grounded, genuine, and above all, authentic. Audiences will certainly come for the jump scares, but they’ll stay for the grief drama.

The Boogeyman opens today (Friday, June 2, 2023), only in movie theaters.

The Boogeyman

  • Rob Savage
  • Scott Beck
  • Bryan Woods
  • Mark Heyman
  • Sophie Thatcher
  • David Dastmalchian
  • Chris Messina
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Bryan WoodsChris MessinaDavid DastmalchianMark HeymanRob SavageScott BeckSophie ThatcherStephen KingThe BoogeymanVivien Lyra BlairHorrorMysteryThriller

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