Most people remember what it felt like to be a small child, when you were awake in the middle of the night, with the lights off, when every tiny sound scraped at the hairs on the back of your neck. There was some kind of man in your bedroom, and you were afraid because that man probably knew how to boogey.
“The Boogeyman” is a very common childhood nightmare. He’s the reason we checked under our beds at night and made our parents triple check the closet. In 1973, Stephen King wrote a short story called “The Boogeyman” about a man who visits a therapist and explains that a monster has killed all of his children, one by one. It’s a scary story, and there’s a reason why fifty years later filmmakers like Rob Savage (“Host”) are still interested in bringing it to the big screen.
This new film stars Chris Messina (“Air”) as Will Harper, a therapist whose wife very recently died, leaving him alone in a house with lots of memories and two daughters, Sadie (Sophie Thatcher, “The Book of Boba Fett”) and Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair, “Kenobi”). But he doesn’t know how to raise them on his own. They’re both grieving young kids, and even though Will sends them to therapy he’s ignoring his own advice and refusing to talk about what he himself is feeling, with his children or anyone else.
The specter of death was hanging over the Harper house before Lester Billings (David Dastmalchian, “The Suicide Squad”) came in with his stories about child murder and monsters. But after that, the Harper family is properly infected. Lester brought with him a creature and that creature is now in their closets, in the shadows. It feeds on grief and it loves to toy with its food.
Savage’s “The Boogeyman” adapts Stephen King’s short story, but that only takes about five minutes. That said, they’re the scariest minutes in the movie, and David Dastmalchian is rivetingly haunted in that short, impactful span. However, after that Savage spends the rest of the movie doing his own riff on David F. Sandberg’s “Lights Out.” There’s a monster in the house, it only moves when it’s dark, and by god he’ll find a lot of ways to make the lights blink on-and-off.
By the time our youngest hero is using exploding arrows in a PlayStation game to brighten the room a few foot-candles, with just enough time between them to build jump scare tension, you’re not really immersed in the film. You’re immersed in a writers room with a great big dry erase board on the wall and the words “LIGHTING GAGS” written in chunky letters, with a producer in the corner saying, “Nobody goes home until we fill this board with bright ideas.” Then they chuckle to themselves because come on now… that was pretty funny.
Savage’s interpretation of “The Boogeyman” is the latest in a long line of contemporary supernatural thrillers where our heroes are constantly trolled by a literal personification of their emotional baggage. In “Lights Out” the monster represented a family history of mental illness. In “It Follows” it was their sexual history. In “Smile” it was post-traumatic stress. In “The Boogeyman,” the monster obviously represents grief, which is rather fitting. All these monsters are bullies with way too much time on their hands wearing their victims down. Call it the “griefer” genre.
But the problem with griefer movies is that, because their monsters are all metaphors, anything resembling a conventional climax — with escalating action and external conflict — is completely pointless. These tales are about processing trauma, so regardless of the events that occur, they can only end with people consumed by that trauma, learning to live with it or going to therapy. The understandable urge to have protagonists fight their inner monster in a visceral way, in physical altercations with cool booby traps and/or flame throwers, in order to symbolize a victory over mental health issues, is a waste of time. The audience already understands that shooting a metaphor with a shotgun or electrifying it in a swimming pool isn’t going to accomplish anything.
So it is that this “The Boogeyman” ultimately fails to boogey, because although some parts of the film have effective shocks and creepy lighting, and even though we can all relate to the issues of bereavement and family estrangement, and even though every actor in the movie is very talented, the execution is at odds with the concept. It doesn’t get into the meat of the protagonists’ troubled psychology so much as it gets into a series of PG-13 jump scares, even if some of them are genuinely jumpy.
No matter how frightening the individual moments may be, and no matter how impressive it is that we only ever see enough of the monster to excite our imagination, and no matter how exceptionally the eerie sound design turns out to be, “The Boogeyman” never quite gets under the skin. Kudos to everyone responsible for all the individual pieces — cinematographer Eli Born, you brought your A-game and thank you for it — but not so much for the generic way they came together.
“The Boogeyman” is in theaters Friday, May 26.