Though it strays far from its source material, Rob Savage’s newest film manages to tap into the primal fear of the monster in the closet
What did your boogeyman look like?
I had two, one in my closet and one under my bed. The one under my bed was just an amorphous blob, and the only things recognizable about it were the cold, damp hands I imagined grabbing me and pulling me underneath if I stood too close. The one in my closet was more like an actual person in my mind, at least in shape, though there was nothing “human” about it. It was a shambling corpse in an old, dirty long coat, its fingers long and filthy, and when it moved it made a wet, squishing noise. I thought that the best way to keep my boogymen at bay was to fill my closet and the area under my bed with as much junk as possible, if for no other reason than it’d be easier to hear them coming. I also refused to ever close my bedroom door, even in the daytime, and insisted on leaving the hallway light on at night. You may think that was silly, but consider this: was I killed and eaten by a boogeyman? Checkmate, me.
Though somewhat constricted by its PG-13 rating, Rob Savage’s The Boogeyman nicely taps into that innate fear of the horrible Something you can’t see but you know is there. It’s an adaptation of a Stephen King short story, and if that phrase immediately causes your heart to sink, well, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that, typical of King short story adaptations, it only minimally resembles its source material, a gruesome little tale that’s not even 10 pages long. The good news is that, as opposed to Children of the Corn and The Lawnmower Man, it works pretty well anyway. Low on gore but high on jump scares, if nothing else it’s perfectly good, entertaining sleepover fare for younger audiences, which is just vital to the horror genre as, say, Terrifier 2.
Sadie Harper (Sophie Thatcher) and her younger sister, Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair), are struggling to return to some sense of normalcy after losing their mother in a car accident. Their psychiatrist father, Bill (Chris Messina in bearded silver fox mode), is too wrapped up in his own grief to help them, even though Sadie has taken to wearing her mother’s clothes and Sawyer is now afraid of the dark.
During Sadie and Sawyer’s first day back at school following the tragedy, a new patient arrives for an unscheduled appointment with Bill. Lester Billings (David Dastmalchian) is coming unraveled, wracked with guilt over the mysterious deaths of his three toddler-aged children. He’s careful to point out to Bill that he didn’t kill them, though he wishes he had, because the idea of that is less terrifying than what actually happened. Lester explains that a “shadow monster” crept out of his children’s closets and killed them all, and his guilt stems from the fact that, like most parents, he ignored their fears until it was too late.
The appointment ends badly, and it soon becomes apparent that, like the malevolent force in last year’s Smile, Lester telling Bill about the shadow monster has more or less passed it on to him, or at least his household. It makes its presence known that very night by kicking Sawyer’s closet door open like a DEA agent on a raid, and only goes downhill from there. In addition to keeping themselves safe, Sadie and Sawyer also must convince Bill, who dismisses Lester as a troubled crackpot, that the boogeyman is real, before it’s too late for them as well.
The resemblance to the original story begins and ends with Dastmalchian’s time on screen (plus the chilling opener), and the rest of The Boogeyman is a fairly standard “nice family battles evil forces in their home” movie. But as Savage proved with the surprise hit Host (we shan’t talk about his follow-up Dashcam), he knows how to build tension, even with something as innocuous as a scene of someone putting laundry in a dryer, and the sound design for the creature will raise some goosebumps on your arms. The audience is kept on high alert throughout much of the movie, wondering what shadow in the background is going to be the boogeyman, or at what point a door is going to crash open. Unless you were lucky enough to not have experienced such things as a child, it’ll make you recall waking in the middle of the night because you thought you heard something, but not being quite sure (and maybe not wanting to know) what that something was.
On the downside, too much time is spent with Sadie’s awful frenemies, almost all of whom treat her mother’s death as if it’s something to be embarrassed about, like getting dumped on prom night. In a movie about a child-killing monster invading someone’s home, manufactured human conflict is an unnecessary distraction at best (and I didn’t buy Thatcher, who plays young Natalie on Yellowjackets, as a lonely high school underdog for a second). Also, you may be (as I was) perplexed as to why no one in the Harper household ever seems to put on actual lamps or ceiling lights to see anything, choosing instead to use everything from an illuminated globe to a refrigerator light. It doesn’t do much but give said boogeyman additional shadows to hide in, and while clever the first one or two times, the effect feels a bit overused by the end.
These are but small criticisms, however, in an effectively creepy movie that doesn’t overstay its welcome, or, thankfully, overexplain itself. We’re not given any insight into what the boogeyman actually is, or where it came from. Like the boogeymen that haunted our childhoods, nobody knows. It’s just there, hiding. Waiting.
I suspect that, given its PG-13 rating, The Boogeyman will have its detractors right out of the gate. That there’s no place in horror for movies geared toward younger, and/or less seasoned audiences is a tiresome argument in a genre rife with tiresome arguments. You gotta start somewhere, and The Boogeyman is a fine movie to do it with. Just make sure that closet door is shut before you go to bed. Maybe put something in front of it too. You can’t be too careful, after all.
The Boogeyman opens in theaters June 2nd.