The Boogeyman Review: Another Eerie And Effective Stephen King Adaptation

Rob Savage's "The Boogeyman," the latest in a long line of Stephen King adaptations, is a solid, sturdy entry in the modern horror canon. Loosely based on King's short story about a terrifying creature that targets a family, this version expands the narrative's scope while still maintaining a contained, personal feel. Several King tropes and themes pop up throughout, all of which are artfully and efficiently folded into the eerie, occasionally unsettling tapestry of tension Savage weaves here. 

While there are plenty of jump scares, this likely won't be the scariest thing you see at the movies this year. But for a film that was initially intended to go straight to streaming, "The Boogeyman" could end up being 2023's version of last year's "Smile" — a project that surprises audiences with its effectiveness and outperforms expectations from industry analysts.

Bad tidings

It's been a month since the Harper family suffered a tragic loss. Will (Chris Messina), a therapist who works out of the family home, lost his wife in a car accident, and he's desperately trying to maintain a sense of normality for his daughters, high school-aged Sadie (Sophie Thatcher) and young Violet (Vivian Lyra Blair). But while the girls are open to dealing with their emotions surrounding their mother's loss, Will has closed himself off, clearly not yet ready to fully grapple with the monumental void they're all experiencing.

When a mysterious, troubled man named Lester Billings (David Dastmalchian) comes to the house to seek treatment from Will, he relays a story about horrifying events that happened to his own family, including the death of his young children. He brings along a piece of paper, a drawing one of his kids made of a creature who terrorized them by hiding in their closets and under the bed. When Will asks what the creature is, Lester responds, "It's the thing that comes for your kids when you're not paying attention." That line isn't pulled directly from King's short story, but it perfectly captures the spirit of the author's work: That idea of not paying attention is a chilling notion that cuts to the core of children who can feel small and helpless, and one that works equally well on parents who feel a different level of terror with the weight of responsibility they have for their kids.

The creature's metaphorical meaning provides some intellectual richness to this story, but it's also a creepy, spindly-legged monster that crawls on ceilings and feeds on its subjects' fear. That should also sound familiar to Stephen King fans: This thing has a similar M.O. as IT, the ancient, multi-dimensional evil force who takes the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Practically speaking, it also seems a little reminiscent of the aliens in "A Quiet Place" — especially late in the film, when the audience finally gets a close look at the monster after it spends the majority of the time scurrying through the shadows. 

Savage uses light as a weapon

Things go poorly for the Harper family once Lester Billings unwittingly brings the creature into their home, and writers Mark Heyman ("Black Swan") and Scott Beck & Bryan Woods ("A Quiet Place" [hey, maybe that similar creature design isn't a coincidence!]) infuse that sense of uneasiness through the rest of the story as the creature seemingly infects Violet and preys upon her emotional vulnerabilities in the wake of her mother's death.

While Violet is being quietly terrorized, Sadie is experiencing the terrors of high school and bristling against a pack of mean girls who rank among the most heartless and excessively cruel on-screen characters in years. The movie works as a bit of a balancing act, juxtaposing the anxieties of adolescence with the more otherworldly frights of the Boogeyman itself. If you've ever seen a movie before, you can guess that all of the subplots collide in a way that could either rip this family apart once and for all, or finally allow them to get some catharsis and face their collective grief.

You've gotta give it up to Rob Savage, because he knows how to craft suspense in powerful visual ways. In a movie about a creature who lurks in the darkness, Savage and his cinematographer Eli Born ("Hellraiser" 2022, "Wild Indian") wisely employ light as a weapon, arming Sawyer with a trusty light ball that she rolls into pitch-black closets or down ominous hallways, and they beautifully track the illumination and uncover spooky results in the snatches of shadows. Later in the film, Sawyer is playing a video game in the living room at night and she's able to briefly brighten up the room by causing her game character to light up the screen, momentarily providing flashes of clarity as the creature stalks its way through her periphery.

The actors understood the assignment

Thatcher, who has broken out with her performance on Showtime's "Yellowjackets," has big Mary Elizabeth Winstead energy in this movie, and coming from someone who loves Winstead's work, that's a high compliment. She shoulders the majority of the weight of this film and does so with aplomb, slowly uncovering information about this mysterious malevolent force and bringing a perspective and physicality to this role that makes Sadie feel relatable and real. Her co-star, Vivian Lyra Blair, who recently played young Leia Organa in Lucasfilm's "Obi-Wan Kenobi" series, is successful at conveying the wide-eyed terror of a child, and she thankfully never leans into that Disney-fied precociousness that so often overtakes child performances and makes me recoil as if I just smelled a rotten egg.

Meanwhile, Chris Messina, who has only really been in a couple of horror or horror-adjacent projects in his long career, makes the case that he should be a staple in this genre by turning in a quiet, direct performance as a man who's doing everything he can to hold his family together but can't quite bring himself to address his own grief. He has patiently become one of the most reliable character actors in Hollywood, and while he doesn't do anything flashy here, he always elevates whatever he's in and it's great to see him age into this phase of his career, with weathered lines on his face and gray in his beard. If you're a filmmaker looking for a reliable presence in your movie, look no further.

The director is on a refreshing career path

"The Boogeyman" doesn't set out to reinvent the wheel, but thankfully, it doesn't need to. Savage knows exactly how to push all the right buttons and pull all the right levers to engineer maximum potency, utilizing classical set-ups and pay-offs in entertaining, satisfying ways. He appears to be on what used to be a commonplace career path for a director in Hollywood, before the days of IP dominance: Make a couple of flashy, low-budget projects before incrementally graduating to a mid-budget studio picture. It feels like a rarity that modern filmmakers are given the chance to hone their skills in this middle level before being sucked into a larger franchise machine, but I'm glad it happened here and I remain curious to see what Savage's trajectory looks like in the coming years. If he keeps making horror films as dependable as this one, the genre will be all the richer.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10