On the surface, calling a horror movie The Boogeyman seems trite and lazy. A generic term for any scary and mysterious being, it has long been used in all kinds of storytelling. But when you see that the film is based on a Stephen King short story and written by the team behind A Quiet Place, more attention must be paid.
After a supremely creepy and disturbing opening scene, the film introduces its main characters: Will Harper (Chris Messina), a therapist, and his two daughters, Sadie (Sophie Thatcher) and Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair). The three are grieving the recent death of their wife/mother, with each coping in different ways. Will is now distant, Sadie sees her own therapist while still lashing out, and Sawyer must sleep with many lights on.
A visit to Will by Lester Billings (David Dastmalchian), a very disturbed man, seems to invite in a creature that thrives in darkness. That creature slowly tortures the two daughters psychologically, starting with Sawyer before moving on to Sadie. With Will checked out in general and Sawyer unable to help much due to her age, it’s up to Sadie to figure out what is happening and how to make it stop.
Directed by Rob Savage and written by Scott Beck, Bryan Woods, and Mark Heyman, the film takes the less-is-more approach, keeping the monster hidden in the shadows for much of the film. Scary things hiding in the dark is a tried-and-true method of horror films, but it works especially well here, chiefly because that terror is often seen through the eyes of the youngest daughter, Sawyer.
Putting kids 10 or younger in peril is not what most horror films typically do, but the effect of doing so is palpable, especially if you’re a parent. The opening scene sets the tone, and every scene involving Sawyer is as tense as you can get. Most of them involve her keeping a wary eye on her closet door or using a light-up model of the moon to expose dark corners, and her feelings of fear transfer easily to the audience.
The stories of Sadie and Will are a little harder to suss out. Sadie gets the most screentime, with awkward conversations with friends and investigations into the creature deemed the most important plot points. What the family was like before mom’s death is not explored much, so it’s difficult to understand Will’s state of mind, with him seeming to almost completely abandon his kids in their time of need.
Thatcher, who plays a character with a similar demeanor on Showtime’s Yellowjackets, does well in the de facto lead role, although the part is more low-key than your usual horror protagonist. Blair, who played a young Princess Leia on the Disney+ show Obi-Wan Kenobi, steals the movie every time she’s on screen; few kids her age could come close to what she accomplishes. Messina is a steady presence, but his character’s personality does him no favors.
By combining familiar elements, a story about a broken family, and some slow burn scares, The Boogeyman rises above its pedestrian title. It maintains its level of dread almost from beginning to end, a lesson that other horror filmmakers would be wise to learn.
The Boogeyman opens in theaters on June 2.