The Boogeyman is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here

An old-fashioned, familiar, deliberately derivative scary movie, The Boogeyman offers only two real shocks. The first is that this is the third feature from 30-year-old British director Rob Savage, who debuted with two of the more innovative and "interesting" (a word that covers a lot of strengths and sins) movies to emerge from the COVID-19 lockdown.

Savage's first, barely-feature-length breakthrough Host (2020)—the story of six friends who decide to conduct a seance over a Zoom-call—was clever and zeitgeist-y almost to a fault, weaponizing the inherent limitations and discomfort of endless video gatherings into a tight, compelling, and genuinely creepy experience.

The success and acclaim of Host earned Savage a three-picture deal with horror studio Blumhouse. His sophomore effort was another "found-footage" shocker, the widely disdained Dashcam (2021), which follows the livestream of a White, aggressively awful, MAGA-hat-wearing "rapper" through a night of supernatural and self-generated horror. (Dashcam was so thoroughly and unrelentingly repellant—in its aesthetics, its script, its politics, and even its casting—that I still can't decide whether it's fascinating and reprehensible, or just reprehensible. I do know that I never want to watch it again, even to form a firmer opinion.)

So it is startling, in retrospect, to see this millennial techno-provocateur's name attached to such a by-the-numbers spook-fest as The Boogeyman. Beginning with its numbingly generic title—used by no fewer than three previous films—everything about The Boogeyman feels like a film that could have been made at any time in the past 50 years.


Which is appropriate, I suppose. The Boogeyman takes its title and launching point from a 50-year-old short story by Stephen King, first published in the porno mag Cavalier in 1973, and later collected in King's first story collection Night Shift (1978). But from this nasty little yarn (a variation of which comprises the opening 20-minutes or so of the film) screenwriters Scott Beck & Bryan Woods (A Quiet Place) and Mark Heyman (Black Swan) have extrapolated a standard PG-13 horror film that could plausibly have been plotted by artificial intelligence pillaging any number of other (if not necessarily better) stories.

Will Harper (Chris Messina) is a therapist, with an office in the home he shares with his two daughters Sadie (Sophie Thatcher, one of the highlights of the Showtime series Yellowjackets) and Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair, recently seen in Bird Box). In the tradition of horror films immemorial, the family is dealing—not very well—with the recent death of the kids' mom in a car accident. Teen-ager Sadie is sullen and distant, grieving her mom while dealing with the bitchiest high-school social group since Carrie White's. Her younger sister Sawyer is terrified of the dark, sleeping in a bed surrounded by a veritable arsenal of light sources. Will is falsely jovial and deeply repressed, encouraging patients to talk about their problems but shutting down any attempts from his own daughters to actually discuss their shared grief.

Do we think a supernatural threat might emerge, which will conveniently mirror the family's repressed trauma and force them to confront it together? We do, and it comes to the house attached to Will's walk-in patient Lester Billings (a creepy David Dastmalchian), who tells Will how all three of his children died, one after the other, in mysterious circumstances. Lester himself is suspected in the deaths, he explains, but he thinks there was something else going on: a malevolent entity that seized onto his family, feeding first off their trauma, and then off their souls. Predictably, Lester has now trailed this evil—like bedbugs—into the Harpers' tasteful, under-lit, trauma-rich Craftsman home.

So if such a pedestrian and predictable haunted house story from Rob Savage is the first surprise of The Boogeyman, the second surprise is that it mostly works. The central metaphor—of the need to confront our trauma, dragging it out of the dark closet and into the light—is neither original nor subtle, but it's a solid enough foundation for the film to feel organic and almost purposeful. And though this is certainly a tonally different, things-that-go-bump-in-the-night class of cinematic horror than the found-footage tricks Savage has trafficked in before, he proves surprisingly adept at this quieter, slower form of suspense. I can't say I was ever really scared: the horror beats are a little too classically constructed, so they play out more as familiar old friends, not frightening threats. (Only the opening scene—featuring a fleeting, startling flashback to the death of one of Lester's children—hints at a potential for real danger and ugliness that the film never ultimately delivers.)

But even as I was intellectually aware of The Boogeyman ticking off boxes on a checklist of monster-under-the-bed tropes, I was surprised to find myself actually enjoying the emotional experience of dancing these familiar film-watching steps. And Savage's skill with a suspense sequence earns the story more interest than it probably deserves. (There's a piece of business with a yanked tooth that pays delightfully unpleasant dividends. And I enjoyed how young Sawyer employs her arsenal of light sources as—well, an arsenal—against the darkness-loving monster.)

Much of the credit for the film's mild success goes to the cast, particularly Thatcher and Blair: unusually for this kind of film, Savage and the screenwriters trust their actresses to embody actual characters—not weighing them down with phony quirks and falsely articulate speeches—and the film is better for it. In any horror movie, caring about the characters is half the battle, and Thatcher and Blair more than get us there.

It's impossible not to wonder whether Savage directed this film out of contractual obligation, or as a sort of formal experiment—to work without his usual bag of tricks—but the resulting film (though far from a classic) is encouraging. I'd be eager to see what he could do with this kind of film if he had just a few more original ideas to work with.

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