The Boogeyman (2023)
Directed by: Rob Savage
Written by: Bryan Woods, Mark Heyman, Scott Beck, Stephen King
Starring: Chris Messina, David Dastmalchian, Marin Ireland, Sophie Thatcher, Vivien Lyra Blair
The Boogeyman (2023)
Directed by Rob Savage
The cupboard door is slightly ajar, and the lights are off. And what’s that rustling sound coming from under your bed?
The Boogeyman, perhaps one of the most well-known mythic figures used to scare children, was ripe material for a Stephen King tale. Though only a short story, it was the undeniable launchpad for 2023s The Boogeyman. And whilst massive liberties are being taken with the story here, it did also grant them the right to use the King name in marketing. Something 2005s Boogeyman did not – an inferior film in all regards and one that I reviewed at the time for my own student magazine (can a movie really be made up entirely of jump-scares … the answer is … no… no … no it cannot!!!). There are jumpscares in 2023s iteration, for sure, but there are also actual scares and one of my rules for horror films is that jumpscares should never outnumber actual scares, if they do then there’s a problem with the script (to differentiate, jumpscares are the false alarms and actual scares are, well, the actual alarms) and I am pleased to say that there are more actual scares here than jumpscares, though it’s only marginal, but it’s still enough to win a referendum!
The Boogeyman figure is the inaugural “thing lurking in the shadows” creature of fable, and director Rob Savage takes particular delight in shot composition and shadowy “suggestion”. He uses the camera to show and withhold the right amount for the length of the film. Countless times during this film I found myself analysing the lingering shots between dialogue (of which, there are many) and playing detective, trying to find where the eponymous Boogeyman was hiding as though I was “reading” a Where’s Wally picture book. Many shadows are just shadows, but between those shadows are shadows that threaten, that lurk and sneer, and between those shadows, you will find the boogeyman.
One shot of note was where the camera was looking through the windowed door of a washing machine, and we the audience were looking at both the reflection and what was on the other side. It’s a good shot, but it kinda defies the feng shui of the house as this washing machine is in the corridor opposite the bedrooms of two girls and a therapists office.
The dialogue is often not great. I mean, not every film can be 2017s The Ritual. It’s a little clunkily, but serviceable none-the-less, and gets its audience from A to B. The movies score is not memorable, and, as I write this, cannot think what it was at all. I remember the end credits music being an ironically upbeat and chirpy, to the point of almost being obnoxious. I know that the ending credit music to 2018s Hereditary, “Both Sides Now” by Judy Collins, was used ironically, and delivers a hell of a gut punch that stuck with me long after the film had ended. Here it served as its own jumpscare, and an unintentional one at that.
Does this film succeed in what it sets out to achieve? Well… sort of. And what I mean by that is … kinda!?
It is here, Boys and Girls, where I will now take us into spoiler territory – abandon all hope ye who read on!
The opening of the film is befuddled. There is a child crying in a crib and the Boogeyman appears and kills the child. We then cut to a family who are mourning. Their mother has died. We are not told if this is the same family, or an entirely different family from the opening. The family who are grieving their mother was someone that died in a car crash and, as far as I can tell, it was un-Boogeyman related – but who knows. The father is the therapist and one day, in walks a man who is the father of the family whose children had been claimed by the Boogeyman. And, I have to say, on this that, I do not eavesdrop in the cinema, you can shut your eyes but not your ears, but there was a couple sat a couple rows up and I heard the girl say, at this point in the story, “I am so confused”. We, the audience, have been pushed into the deep end on a narrative that is not interested in explaining itself. Anyway, the man is Lester Billings and he is grieving the loss of his children and wants to speak to a therapist, this happens to be Chris Messina’s Dr Will Harper, widower and the family patriarch. The 1978 short story by Stephen King focuses exclusively on this scene in the therapist’s office. The lingering question is, did this man, Lester, kill his children or did the Boogeyman do it? The ending features Lester discovering Dr Harper returning to the closet and casting off the therapist disguise to reveal itself as the Boogeyman. Interesting twist in a pre-Shyamalan age. Suffice to say this is not what the 2023 adaptation does, though the imitation of the creature may have drawn inspiration from the short story – more on that later.
In the movie, Lester Billings kills himself. But this is the work of the Boogeyman, and he has moved onto new prey and starts “haunting” (it’s not a ghost, but it does observe “spooking the family witless” rules) the Harper family, starting with the daughters. There’s Sadie, played by Sophie Thatcher, and Sawyer Harper, played by Vivien Lyra Blair. I am reminded of the writing rule that dictates that no two characters have names beginning with the same letter. This was missed here, but it’s not a problem, the rule is meant to prevent confusion and I was never confused. If Dr Harper had three daughters and they were called Lisa, Liza and Lizzy then we’d be in real trouble! George R R Martin once lamented that, for A Song of Ice and Fire, he simply could not observe the rule as he has more than 26 characters. The Boogeyman’s roster of characters barely hits double figures.
The girls get spooked, freaked out and upset. The Boogeyman starts tormenting the youngest daughter first, Sawyer, and it’s a real bully move. The elder daughter even gets bullied at school. Her only friend hangs out with other girls that I will charitably call, frenemies. Focus is given to the daughters grieving the loss of their mother in different ways. With Sadie having the harder time letting go. She says early on, “I don’t want to let go”. And that’s fair enough. But I cold only marvel at the colossal insensitivity of the friends who are fully aware of the tragedy that has befallen Sadie’s family and continue to bully her regardless. Sadie turns up to school in her mothers’ dress, and yes, the inevitable happens, it gets spilled on. In her own time, Sadie becomes a surrogate mother figure to her younger daughter and also tries to communicate with her dead mother, watching youtube videos on how to commune with the dead. A nice callback to Rob Savage’s 2020 film “Host”. It was also nice to hear a Scottish accent in this film. And what subsequently caught my eye was a Union Jack cushion on Sadie’s chair. The daughters gradually come to the inevitable realisation that there really is something in the house, when its dark. All that they have to do now is convince their father.
The younger sister, Sawyer, has a light ball that featured heavily in the marketing. I was constantly trying to spot the damn things power port, but alas, some things are not meant to be found. Some of the films best scares come from this device, which Sawyer frequently bowls ahead of her and toward the danger, giving us but mere fleeting glimpses of the encroaching threat.
The father is a positive figure in the girls’ lives, but a mostly absent one. He too is suffering the loss of his wife and is initially in denial over the Boogeyman spookenings.
Sadie shows some initiative and visits the house of the former Boogeyman victims. When she enters the house, there are candles everywhere and I remember thinking, either the film makers have messed up, those candles would have burnt out long ago, or that families matriarch is still alive. Thankfully it turned out to be the former. But she not a happy bunny. The house is rigged with traps, flood lights, polaroid flash cameras. Marin Ireland plays Rita Billings, widow of Lester and mother of three children who were Boogeyman’d. It was her child from the opening scene! Marin does a great job of playing someone who is fundamentally disturbed. She lays a trap that involves tripwires and shotgun shells that nearly kills the Boogeyman. He bleeds and Sadie sees it. The film really wants to say “If it bleeds, we can kill it”, but that line of dialogue has long since been claimed.
The creature design in this film is amazing. Really impressed. So, going back to the “Immitation” that King’s short story included. The movie Boogeyman is not a shapeshifter, though early scenes in the film are designed to make you think that it could be, but it does imitate voices. Not perfectly, far from it in fact, they wind up and down and are very scary facsimiles of the vocalisations it has heard. There’s an effort to show and not tell with the creature. It is old, it has been amongst us since before man first learned how to make fire. It says things but doesn’t understand what the sounds mean, like a parrot can imitate the noises it hears. Its legs are all wrong, and it walks on all fours. Interesting thing is when it goes to “claim” a victim. It opens its mouth wide, very wide, a la the creature from “Smile”, and what I thought at first to be mandibles, turned out to be fingers. Two arms reached out to grab Sadie’s head at her characters nadir and, between them, inside that insanely wide-open mouth, was the head of another entity. A face, open eyes. No explanation. Tendrils started coming out of Sadie’s face and branching up towards the Boogeyman (Boogeymen?) and the creature is clearly vulnerable when it is in this state. Unfortunate then that the family group together and attack it. I remember from 2005s Boogeyman, that the creature in that film moved through the shadows. Something similar happens here, it creates what at first looks like rot, but these become shadowy tendrils that allow the creature to move from place to place. The subplot about Sadie’s dead mother comes full circle when she gives her daughter a message right at the crucial moment in the film’s effective finale.
There’s an attempt at a metaphor surrounding grief, that the boogeyman parasitically predates on emotional trauma. But does the boogeyman prey on trauma that’s already there? Because with the first family of victims there’s no mention of trauma that predates the boogeyman attacks, it is the boogeyman itself that is solely responsible for the harm done to the family. It’s a half-baked thought that is not fully realised. When we all have the film The Babadook to compare it too, it makes stumbling’s like this all the more glaring.