The Boogeyman Is a Satisfyingly Spooky Exploration of Fear

Movies Reviews Stephen King
The Boogeyman Is a Satisfyingly Spooky Exploration of Fear

Even in its original short story form, appearing in his first collection Night Shift in 1978, Stephen King‘s “The Boogeyman” retains a remarkably clever narrative scaffolding. In that version, the tale simply follows a disturbed man telling a therapist about the monster that killed all three of his children, then caps things off with a twist ending which cements our understanding that the monster is not just real, but still quite present. It sends a chill down your spine when you read the last line, but the real magic lies in the larger point of the story that lives in your brain long after you’ve closed the book: Fear never leaves. It just changes.

The challenge of bringing this story to the big screen, therefore, was not to faithfully execute every beat of the original story’s plot, but to preserve that core idea—to keep intact the feeling that something was scuttling in the darkness of our world even after the credits rolled. It’s a challenge that’s more about tone than jump scares or monster designs, and while those elements are also present, the most impressive thing about The Boogeyman is how well that tone shines through. Even when you might want more from its plot, and even when it’s sticking to quiet character drama over all-out monster assaults, The Boogeyman thrives on the implied thing that’s lurking in every corner, which makes it a very effective, intimate creepshow.

The film’s script, by Mark Heyman and A Quiet Place writers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, uses the original King tale as a catalyst for the larger story of the title creature, and the family it’s haunting. In this case, that family is the Harpers, led by therapist and recent widower Will (Chris Messina), who meets the disturbed patient from the original story (David Dastmalchian giving his scene-stealing best) early in the film and sets off on a darker, larger journey. Since losing his wife to a car accident, Will has been struggling to be a present father to his two daughters, teenage Sadie (Sophie Thatcher) and the much younger Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair), who’s troubled by visions of monsters in her closet and under her bed.

Of course, the central hook of The Boogeyman is that the creature Sawyer sees lurking in her room is not only real but very dangerous, having already destroyed one family and, through Will’s new patient, transferred to the Harper home. What follows is a battle for the lives and souls of a broken family, as the Harpers must fight their own inner darkness, all while grappling with the idea that something inhuman, ancient and relentless is ready to eat them alive.

None of this works, of course, if the Boogeyman itself isn’t scary both on and off-screen, and director Rob Savage throws himself into accomplishing that particular mission right from the start. Savage, best-known for high-concept computer screen-heavy films like Host and Dashcam, thrives in the shadow-laden, textural creepiness of this film’s intimate setting. Working mostly within the confines of the Harper house, Savage uses swirling cameras, liberal shadows, and carefully placed props to make us wonder where the monster is at all times. The inevitable wind-ups to jump scares are there, of course, but the more impressive piece of horror craftsmanship here is just how well Savage uses the quiet, the empty, the bits of the house swallowed by darkness, to convince us that we’re moving through an infested space. 

Then there are the performances from actors who have to move within this haunted space and navigate the dual emotional minefields that are grief and the growing, very present trauma lurking just out of frame. Thatcher is up to the task, and commands the film with the ease of a genre veteran. We’re drawn to her emotional journey with every frame she’s in, which isn’t to say her co-stars are forgettable, but because she’s so good at inhabiting the psychological space of someone who’s still putting a shape to her fears—still learning where they thrive and how to manage them. Messina and Blair put their own respective spins on this same visceral journey, earning the creature feature payoffs of the film’s third act, and they all get a memorable assist from Marin Ireland as a woman pushed to the brink by loss. 

It all works, and if there’s a flaw in the execution of The Boogeyman, it’s only that you can’t help but wish the film had gone a little deeper on certain key emotional beats. The lean 99-minute runtime doesn’t spend much time breaking down the creature, nor does it need to, but sometimes it does feel like at least one or two of the creepy, creeping tracking sequences down a dark hallway could have been replaced by character moments, giving the overall film greater impact. The story is packed, as The Boogeyman works to satisfy not one, but three emotional narratives while also giving us a satisfying monster and some meaty side characters along the way. The film feels stuffed, and while most of the time that’s a good thing, you can’t help but wonder if a greater sense of priority would have helped breathe even more life into the narrative.

But these issues are forgivable, and even forgettable, because the sheer atmospheric dread of The Boogeyman is so strong, so enduring, that its eventual point can’t help but shine through. With memorable performances, excellent horror craft and a title creature you won’t soon forget, The Boogeyman gives shape to our fears, and reminds us why it’s so hard to let them go, all while delivering a fun, creepy thrill ride. 

Director: Rob Savage
Writer: Scott Beck, Bryan Woods, Mark Heyman
Starring: Sophie Thatcher, Chris Messina, Vivien Lyra Blair, David Dastmalchian, Marin Ireland
Release Date: June 2, 2023

Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.

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