Producers: Shawn Levy, Dan Levine and Dan Cohen Director: Rob Savage Screenplay: Scott Beck, Bryan Woods and Mark Heyman Cast: Sophie Thatcher, Chris Messina, Vivien Lyra Blair, Marin Ireland, Madison Hu, Maddie Nichols, Leann Ross, LisaGay Hamilton and David Dastmalchian Distributor: 20th Century Studios
Stephen King’s short story, first published in 1973 (the same year as “Carrie”), might have made a respectable “Twilight Zone” episode—it’s basically a monologue by a distraught man named Billings, in which he explains to his therapist Will Harper that his three children were all killed by a creature they referred to as the boogeyman and that he feels personally responsible for their deaths. It even boats a twist ending Rod Serling might have appreciated, though King’s attempts at those were never his forte. A faithful adaptation would have fit snugly into TZ’s half-hour format.
That couldn’t work as a feature, however, so Scott Beck, Bryan Woods and Mark Heyman (the first two of whom collaborated on “A Quiet Place,” while Heyman was co-writer on “Black Swan”) use the story as a springboard for a tale with elements similar to those King often employed in his later work. Here the tale told by Billings (David Dastmalchian) to Harper (Chris Messina) serves basically as prologue, King’s twist is jettisoned and replaced with a suspicious suicide, and the entity the dead children called the boogeyman now sets its sights on Harper’s daughters, high schooler Sadie (Sophie Thatcher) and her younger sibling Sawyer (Vivian Lyra Blair). They’re prime targets, the film suggests, because the Harper household is gripped by grief over the recent death of Will’s wife, the girls’ mother, in an auto accident and the boogeyman feeds on grief—like so many of King’s apparently eternal monsters feed on human emotions. (The fact that the Billings family was not beset by such grief until the first child died is never addressed.)
In any event, from this point the picture becomes a play of shadows as the boogeyman stalks the girls when the lights dim or are turned off. Messina’s Will fades into the background, wallowing in angst that, we’re meant to believe, dulls his perception of what’s actually happening just as Billings had failed to understand the danger to his children in time.
That makes Sadie the major protagonist, and she takes the lead in investigating the threat. That includes visiting the Billings house, a horrendously chaotic place where she encounters Rita (Marin Ireland), the half-crazed widow who’s intent on killing the beast that destroyed her family, even if doing so endangers others. But Sadie also has to deal with a clique of her classmates—the friendly one (Madison Hu), the overly inquisitive one (Leann Ross), and the mean, obnoxious one (Maddie Nichols)—who are intrigued with the tragedy that has befallen her family, and with the counselor (LisaGay Hamilton) Will has enlisted to treat his broken brood.
Director Rob Savage, production designer Jeremy Woodward, cinematographer Eli Born and editor Peter Gvozdas craft many of the individual images and sequences with a canny eye for light and dark, and they follow the pattern of “Jaws” in being discreet about early appearances of the creature, allowing only brief, obscured glimpses as it lurks in closets (its favorite haunt) or under children’s beds, or is seen only in hazy backgrounds. Of course as the film goes on, the boogeyman must become increasingly visible, and by the close is seen in full, looking pretty much like any other CGI alien being (those in “A Quiet Place” being visual-effects cousins). The quietly sinister bits are accompanied by more obvious jolts in the form of jump scares or gotcha moments, which is where Patrick Jonsson’s grim score comes to the fore to provide an extra frisson of shock. All told, the movie manages to be more creepy than scary, and when the final confrontation occurs it’s pretty much a disappointment, which is also true of the coda with the family’s counselor that suggests a sequel might be waiting in the wings.
In terms of the human performers, “The Boogeyman” is clearly a showcase for Thatcher, and the young actress, best known as the younger version of the Jennifer Lewis character on Showtime’s “Yellowjackets,” makes a creditable transition to the big screen. Blair is fine as her sister, whose room seems always bathed in eerie light, but Messina is wasted in a thankless part; you might want to watch “Air” again to see him at his best. Everyone else is okay, though Ireland overdoes Rita’s wackiness, as does Nichols the mean girl bitchiness.
“The Boogeyman” is a decent enough nail-biter, but it lacks the cleverness of the most successful modern horror movies, being a slow, solemn walk down a terribly familiar road. It certainly doesn’t stand out among the plethora of King adaptations.