Stephen King’s short stories are some of the bleakest, most upsetting horror fiction of his career. And that’s really saying something. In the same stretch of the early ’70s that saw publication of some of his most celebrated, including “Trucks,” “The Mangler,” and “Battleground,” King gave us “The Boogeyman,” a riff on perhaps the classic nightmare monster. The story is excellent, depicting the titular menace attacking a family and picking it apart person by person. It’s a nasty, fun little story. Adapting it to a feature film, director Rob Savage (Host) keeps some of that, but not quite enough to make it stand out.
Story goes, in 2018 A Quiet Place screenwriting partners Scott Beck and Bryan Woods optioned the King story. After loads of Hollywood production nonsense, which saw other writers come on and leave, the eventual script comes to us from Beck, Woods, and Mark Heyman whose previous feature films are co-writing 2010’s Black Swan and co-writing 2014’s The Skeleton Twins. End of list. Directing duties fell to Rob Savage, the British filmmaker who made a splash in 2020 with the hour-long, shot-on-Zoom horror movie Host. The result feels a bit like A Quiet Place but in a house, with a bit of mental health stuff thrown in.
The movie follows the Harper family; father Will Harper (Chris Messina), a psychiatrist, is trying to solo parent his teenage daughter Sadie (Sophie Thatcher) and elementary-age daughter Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair) following the sudden death of their mother. Will has, as yet, been unable to open up to Sadie about his feelings, leaving her to mostly cope alone. One day, a disturbed man named Lester Billings (David Dastmalchian) comes into Harper’s home office and wants to tell him about the deaths of his children, seemingly at the hands of an unseen shadow force. Oops, now the monster wants the Harper family! Dang it, Lester!
The Boogeyman boasts some solid jump scare moments and a wholly otherworldly monster. It definitely feels more alien than demonic, and it has a similar long-arm-crawly thing that the Quiet Place aliens do. Except instead of attraction to sound, this guy has aversion to light. Savage handles the tension and thing-in-the-dark chills quite adeptly. We never fully get a sense of how this creature operates, but its methods—including warping the sound of loved one’s voices—works in the mix.
The problem is the story. It takes no chances at all in the Harper family drama. We’ve seen this a million times before. Following the death of a parent, the other parent closes off while the eldest child has to be the grown up and the youngest child has nightmares. It’s Horror Movie Setup 101. As good as the actors are, the plot follows such a rote path without taking risks or adding wrinkles. Dad doesn’t believe there’s a monster, so eldest daughter has to try to save the day.
For those who haven’t read the short story, it entirely focuses on Billings relaying the horrifying events to the psychiatrist. That’s where all the horror truly lies as it sees a man forced to watch his children succumb to this monster. That portion of the movie is incredibly brief and the rest feels so underwhelming. It’s like a bit of Insidious; a scosh of Poltergeist; even a little Haunting of Hill House. It never branches out into its own thing.
And I think its biggest failing is it doesn’t go as hard as last year’s Smile which attacked the mixture of demonic curse and mental health/trauma so much more effectively. The Boogeyman isn’t bad, it’s fine. It has a couple of nifty sequences, some good scares. It’s just nothing like as scary as it ought to be. It pulls too many punches, tries to explain too much and not enough. The monster in the closet, under the bed, in the basement—we’ve seen it all before. Without the punch of King’s original prose or macabre sensibility, it’s little more than a passing shiver.
The Boogeyman hits theaters on June 2.
Kyle Anderson is the Senior Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Instagram and Letterboxd.