Written by: Scott Beck & Bryan Woods (screenplay), Mark Heyman (screenplay), Stephen King (short story)
Directed by: Rob Savage
Starring: Sophie Thatcher, Vivien Lyra Blair, and Chris Messina
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"What is this supposed to be?”
"It's the thing that comes for your children when you aren't paying attention."
"It's the thing that comes for your children when you aren't paying attention."
Back during the first wave—let’s call it the Golden Era—of Stephen King adaptations, two trends made it clear we’d reached a saturation point in the 90s. One was just the sheer abundance of movies: not only were studios still riding the King gravy train to theaters, but they’d also turned television into a haven for Constant Readers. At one point, it seemed like a new movie or mini-series premiered every other week, a fad that soon proved to be a double-edged sword because of the other, even more troubling trend: the increasingly tenuous connections to King’s work. It’s not just that some adaptations were unfaithful: some were clearly just exploiting titles, which is how we ended up with sequels to the likes of Pet Sematary and Sometimes They Come Back that had no basis in King’s actual written word. The nadir of this movement was The Lawnmower Man, a movie so shamelessly disconnected from King’s story that the author sued to have his name removed from the project.
I don’t know that we’ve reached this point with this recent King resurgence, but I couldn’t help thinking about it during The Boogeyman. Adapted from one of the earliest published King stories, its very existence invites skepticism due to the story’s length (it’s about 11 pages long in my paperback copy of Night Shift), not to mention its bleak material involving a man named Lester Billings recounting the grisly deaths of his three children at the hands of an unseen, malevolent entity. Suffice it to say, it’s not one of King’s more light-hearted stories, even if it is a potent exploration of 1970s parental and masculine anxieties. Of course, we’re a long way—50 years away, in fact—from that era, so it stands to reason that a modern take would inevitably take a different path, and that’s exactly what the crew behind this long-gestating adaptation has done. Using the basis of King’s story as a suggestion—or, as the author himself has put it, a prologue—The Boogeyman transforms King’s “monster-in-the-closet” parental nightmare into a “monster-under-the-bed” spook-a-blast for the sleepover horror crowd. It’s a fairly sharp digression from the original text, and, while it may not be as egregious as previous offenders, it suggests that the Kingsploitation tradition is alive and well.
In this version of the story, Billings (David Dastmalchian) arrives at psychiatrist Will Harper’s (Chris Messina) doorstep, disheveled, dismayed, and desperately seeking an audience. Despite Harper’s “appointments only” policy, Billings insists on a session, where he spills all the sordid details from the original story. The mysterious circumstances of the children’s deaths have made him an obvious suspect, and his cryptic rantings and ravings do little to disavow Harper of the notion, so he quickly calls the police. Before they can arrive, however, Lester hangs himself in a closet, where Harper’s oldest daughter Sadie (Sophie Thatcher) finds his body dangling from the door. Already grieving the recent loss of her mother, Sadie is further traumatized by a discovery that only portends further horrors. Before long, she and her sister Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair) begin to suspect something is amiss: a mysterious mold spreads through their house, where a shadowy figure matching the description of Lester’s “boogeyman” lurks in the dark, waiting to claim more victims.
Obviously, absolute fealty to the source material was not a priority for the creative team here, which started with a script from A Quiet Place scribes Scott Beck and Bryan Woods. King’s actual story is just background lore here, and any familiar elements go out of the window with Lester’s suicide, allowing co-writer Mark Heyman and director Rob Savage to treat the primal boogeyman mythos as a wide canvas. With the exception of some scant descriptions and a climactic twist, the nature of Lester’s boogeyman is rather vague, and this adaptation takes that as a license to transform King’s talky page-turner into a haunted house movie that dovetails into creature feature territory. Mostly, it reminded me of the spate of supernatural films that erupted in the wake of The Ring and The Grudge about 20 years ago, a comparison I’m sure doesn’t inspire much confidence. And if I’m being honest, The Boogeyman doesn’t exactly have me itching to go back to watch the likes of Darkness Falls and, uh, The Boogeyman (2005). While it’s a thoughtful way to reimagine and divert sharply from an original text, it paradoxically feels too beholden to genre formula. Simply put: this might not be King’s original story, but it’s certainly something you’ve seen before.
Unfortunately, straying from the page is the first and only bold choice here; otherwise, The Boogeyman is a rote exercise in prefabricated haunted house construction, with grief and trauma providing a reliable foundation to create the pretense of gravitas. It’s a glum piece of work, but not in the same manner as King’s story; instead, it’s another one of those sullen, studious affairs with a slow-burn approach that rarely roars to life. Despite its grim material, even the short story flashes a light, EC Comics-inspired touch (King even clumsily name-drops Tales from the Crypt at one point) that playfully invites readers to connect the dots in Lester’s story with its twist ending. This film, on the other hand, thrives on doom and gloom by subjecting Sadie to multiple encounters with mean girls and a skeptical, fairly worthless father whose presence in the story is almost immaterial.
You can see what they were going for: The Boogeyman feels inspired by A Nightmare on Elm Street with its depiction of youth besieged by an inexplicable, otherworldly terror that they can’t possibly explain. It gets this much of the formula right, at least, because there’s a genuine investment in these two sisters, with two compelling performances to anchor the story. Thatcher especially has a strong screen presence, and, if The Boogeyman works at all, it’s because she injects a stock character with enough humanity, giving the audience something to latch onto besides the scares. A subplot involving the possible ghost of Sophie and Sawyer’s dead mother is also a nice touch that you could imagine in King’s work, which often nestles multiple supernatural situations within each other. Here, it represents a glimmer of light at the end of a long, drab tunnel, something the film could use more of, even if it feels a little bit like a cloying emotional ploy (another staple of King’s fiction, if we’re being fair).
Likewise, The Boogeyman could have had a more imaginative vision of the world surrounding these characters, especially as it relates to the title creature. Without the evocative hook of a dream stalker capable of killing you in dreams or the indelible presence that Robert Englund brought to Elm Street’s boogeyman, this monster feels a little bit too nebulous and unremarkable. Savage observes proper monster movie decorum by keeping his beast shrouded in shadows* until the climactic confrontation, when he unleashes some brief creature feature thrills that hint at a different, schlockier sort of movie—and one that may have been a little bit more engaging, at that. Taken as a whole, The Boogeyman is a bit too insubstantial to have any staying power, almost as if it were trying to live up to the ephemeral nature of its namesake. Unmooring The Boogeyman from the story’s parental anxieties and attaching it to childhood trauma is a clear, deliberate choice that’s ultimately inconsequential because the script never probes beyond the vague, allegorical broad strokes of grief and trauma we’ve seen so much of lately. It’s nice that The Boogeyman doesn’t want to be just a monster movie, but it struggles to justify its austere approach.
The formulaic stuffiness of The Boogeyman is especially disappointing coming from Savage, whose previous films thrived on a sense of edginess and danger. His pandemic hit Host was a particularly inventive orchestration of suspense and scares, and Savage does show off those chops on occasion here by making clever use of light and shadow to build tension and unleash jolts. I have to admit at least three of them got me—if nothing else, The Boogeyman is a decent little chair-jumper at times. I just wish there were more to it than that. Despite Savage and company’s attempt to beef up a meager short story, the film is even more lightweight, especially since it's stripped of all the peculiarities that make King’s story so memorable. Simply breezing past the text is what ultimately sinks this adaptation, especially since Dastmalchian and Marin Ireland (as Lester’s wild-eyed, raving wife) provide the film’s most unsettling and interesting energy. Filmmakers take note: when in doubt, your movie could always use more of these two playing unnerving weirdos, not less.
This is the last thing I expected to say about The Boogeyman, but I wish it had invested more in the Billings’ ordeal before passing the baton over to the Harper family. Sure, that would have resulted in a longer film that dwelled a little bit more on the deaths of young children, but it may have also been more memorable and more worthy of its pedigree. But what do I know? Savage and the film have earned ringing endorsements from King himself, something that certainly carries more weight than my opinion, not to mention something other legendary filmmakers and their adaptations can’t claim,—take that Stanley Kubrick!
*I should note that when I saw The Boogeyman, it was soaked in shadows, no doubt due to substantial, dim projection at my local theater—from what I could see, the creature itself looked neat enough, though!
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