Want to give a horror film atmosphere? Just add dark rooms and nighttime settings. Create a scary monster? Make their motivation murder or bloodletting. Want a vulnerable hero? Make your lead a young woman. Ensure your scary movie becomes a classic? Ah, there’s the rub. Not so easy. Many things go into making a truly memorable frightener from its novel premise to its stars to how well it is directed. But nothing can harm such ventures as characters who act stupid. Why cheer for protagonists who act idiotically, turning off an audience and losing relatability?
That’s the main problem with THE BOOGEYMAN. Its source material is a clever short story by Stephen King about a monster feeding off the grief of human beings. Its director is the talented Rob Savage, a filmmaker who knows how to light and edit for mood and dread. But the script by Scott Beck, Bryan Woods, and Mark Heyman is neither clever or subtle, with far too many cheap jump scares and moronic characters on display. The three talented writers (Beck and Woods wrote A QUIET PLACE; Herman, BLACK SWAN) should know better than to make the leads so doltish that they exasperate, but that’s what they do.
Those leads are three family members, reeling from the recent death of the mother in the close-knit clan. Psychologist dad Will Harper (Chris Messina) attempts to bury himself in work to move on, while his daughters struggle at home and at school to get past their depression. Youngest Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair) has trouble sleeping because she thinks there’s a demon in her closet. (There is.) Teenager Sadie (Sophie Thatcher) mopes around at school, sullen and feisty, but also keenly aware of the weird disturbances happening in her home. If the film explored more of their mind-addling grief and how perhaps the Boogeyman was possibly all in their heads, the film could’ve been a compelling mystery too. Instead, Savage and his team waste the opportunity by making the beast wholly real from the get-go while failing to let the characters deal with such eminent danger as smart people would and should.
Dad is exceptionally clueless as both a parent and psychologist. He fails to properly address either of his daughter’s fears, and he’s an even bigger dunderhead when it comes to interacting with patients. A dangerously psychotic man named Lester Billings (David Dastmalchian) drops by unannounced one day and dad lets him in immediately. Then he leaves his potential patient alone for enough time in which the psycho goes and hangs himself in the office. Messina has played clueless pricks before, like in the HBO miniseries SHARP OBJECTS and the recent feature AIR, but here, his skill at rendering such jerks makes this doofus dad all the more unworthy of our attention.
Sadie isn’t much more likable either. She treats everyone like crap, overreacts to every slur, and willingly puts herself in danger over and over again. At one point, she barges into an abandoned house to play amateur sleuth and ends up being held at rifle-point by the loony woman still living there. Another time Sadie hosts a gaggle of girlfriends in her home, even though she knows the place is being haunted by a demon. Wouldn’t she be concerned for her own safety, let alone that of her friends? Even little Sawyer tries our patience, willing to stay in the house as well after repeated attacks on the family by the Boogeyman.
Savage, et al. unfortunately savage even more of the story when the beast is finally shown and he’s little more than a dull derivative of other movie monsters. Even the fight scenes between family and fiend deteriorate into ham-fisted antics and painfully obvious resolutions that any horror fan will see coming a mile away. It’s a shame because King’s original examination of grief offered the filmmakers a chance to make hay out of his digging deeper into despairing minds. Instead, the movie seems far too happy to default to dumbing down the potential. The Boogeyman may thrive in the dark, but unenlightened filmmakers certainly do not.