The fear of the dark is probably the most primal terror that mankind has — a powerful instinct that lets us know there could very well be something lurking in the shadows that means us harm. Add to that people’s own propensity for projecting their worst fears ahead of them, and that’s the perfect recipe for being terrified of the dark. We may grow out of seeing horrible monsters in our closets and ravenous creatures under our beds, but that creeping dread still exists somewhere in our brains. “The Boogeyman” knows these primal fears of ours, the ones coded in our DNA and cultivated in childhood, and uses them to exquisite ends in a terrifically solid horror movie. Director Rob Savage maintains a creepy tension throughout while injecting the proceedings with some cleverly constructed scares that will have audiences shrieking.
High school student Sadie Harper (Sophie Thatcher) is still adjusting to life after the death of her mom. And for her little sister, Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair), that loss has been compounded by a devastating fear of the dark. None of this is helped by their father, Will (Chris Messina), a therapist who is oddly distant from his daughters. One day, a man named Lester Billings (David Dastmalchian) shows up on Will’s couch and recounts the mysterious deaths of his three children. Everyone suspects that Billings is the one responsible, but the truth is that it was a malevolent force that lives in the shadows. When that same creature sets its sights on the Harpers, Sadie must figure out how to keep her remaining family safe from the monster.
There is an art to startling audiences, and it shouldn’t be easily dismissed. The key is in knowing how to properly use tension and misdirection for effective jump scares. Though it’s true that any sudden loud noise (like an orchestral sting or some sort of scream) can produce a similar jolted reaction, it won’t land as hard, last as long or be as memorable as those carefully crafted scares. Working from a script by Scott Beck, Bryan Woods and Mark Heyman (based on a short story by Stephen King), Savage does a great job setting up these terrifying moments by making sure the audience knows that anything can happen at any time. The possibilities for horror are seemingly endless, as any shadow or dark corner could be the source of the creature’s latest attack. DP Eli Born does a great job of creating shadowed surfaces without rendering the entire screen into some darkened, muddled mess. Everything can be adequately seen… except the parts that are purposefully hidden away.
Something that probably should have stayed hidden for a bit longer is the monster itself. The design by Rob Stanley feels uninspired and far too familiar (and not in the childhood trauma sort of way), robbing some of the impact each time it appears. Luckily, the majority of the creature’s screen time takes place in the shadows, as it’s mostly the mere threat of its presence that makes the scenes work. Those scenes are also fueled by excellent performances, especially by Thatcher and Blair, who craft real characters and not just perfunctory horror archetypes. It’s very easy to come across as one-note in movies about curses, perpetually under the Sword of Damocles, but the actors elevate and humanize their roles to make the danger even more palpable.
That sense of dread can be overbearing or monotonous in horror films (see “Smile”), but “The Boogeyman” creates enough of a mystery and propulsion to move the story along, even with the relatively small body count. To be fair, this is a movie whose first scene contains a baby being killed off-screen, so the stakes are established incredibly early on, while Dastmalchian’s tremendous performance really sells the terror that the family is about to face. There are still missteps along the way that seem inherent to the subgenre, like moments of the monster’s ill-defined abilities that exist just to progress the plot, or characters making unforced errors through bad decisions even at points where they should know better. However, they aren’t so egregious that it bogs anything down or distracts terribly from the story or execution.
Another aspect that helps differentiate “The Boogeyman” from other horror movies is that it has more on its mind than just scary monsters. The writing and acting reinforce a palpable sense of grief that the Harpers are experiencing, and that transforms the monster story into a strong multi-layered metaphor. The shadows that infect and threaten the family are just like the unspoken words that they can’t address about their mother’s death, and that burdensome weight threatens to rip them apart unless they are confronted by some means, preferably together. It’s not done as well as in similar films (“The Babadook,” “It Follows”), but the attempt at deepening the story is noticeable, appreciated and truly helps the movie engage better. The monster isn’t just a simple boogeyman but something that many of us have faced in our own lives. That helps boost the stakes and draws you in more.
A common side effect of being startled in a movie is laughter. It’s a relief of pressure and an assertion over one’s fears. It’s a true testament to “The Boogeyman” that Savage walks a fine line between a frequent assault on the nerves and avoiding blandness of overuse. Too much dread, and the movie becomes a parody; too many startling moments, and it all blurs together. It’s an impossible calculation that isn’t always nailed here, but more often than not, it gets it right. Savage’s film isn’t perfect, nor does it rise higher than its station as a solid movie, but “The Boogeyman” will have some people leaving their lights on a little bit longer to ward off the dark, which is certainly a sign of success.
Starring: Sophie Thatcher, Chris Messina, Vivien Lyra Blair, David Dastmalchian
Director: Rob Savage