‘The Boogeyman’ Review: In This Stephen King Adaptation, the Real Monster Is a Terrifying Lack of Subtlety

"A Quiet Place" screenwriters Scott Beck and Bryan Woods turn the horror maestro's creepy short story into a jump-scare creature feature.
Sophie Thatcher as Sadie Harper in 20th Century Studios' THE BOOGEYMAN. Photo by Patti Perret. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
"The Boogeyman"
Patti Perret

Early in Rob Savage’s “The Boogeyman,” a haunted (understandably, given what we learn about his tragic backstory) Lester Billings (David Dastmalchian) attempts to show a guarded (understandably, given what we learn about his tragic backstory) Will Harper (Chris Messina) a hand-drawn image of the monster that Lester claims murdered his three young children. That there’s an actual monster at play in this Stephen King adaptation isn’t up for debate — the film’s opening moments even show said monster creeping out of a closet, whispering a horrible mix of aped human conversation and animal moans, and killing a kid — but the shape it takes, both literal and figurative, is initially presented as a mystery.

Still, whatever therapist Will sees in his patient Lester’s drawing (and in Lester himself) is enough to send him straight to the cops; since we don’t also see the image when he does, it hints at a subtle, sneaky horror fable to come. Too bad: Savage’s film, written by “A Quiet Place” creators Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, along with “Black Swan” screenwriter Mark Heyman, quickly jettisons the primary questions of King’s creepy short story — what is the Boogeyman and what does it want? — and reveals both the monster and its bloodlust in surprisingly short order. Neither King’s story nor Savage’s occasionally clever direction lack for compelling ideas, but once “The Boogeyman” goes all in on becoming a screeching, jump-scare creature feature, most of its merits are hacked and slashed into oblivion.

Ostensibly built on the bone-deep horror that is grief, Savage’s film opens with the introduction of two ruined families: Lester’s three children are dead, and he’s compelled to share what happened to them with Dr. Harper, a man going through his own heartbreak after his beloved wife recently died in a car accident. When we first meet the remaining Harpers, including teenager Sadie (“Yellowjackets” star Sophie Thatcher, and the real star of this film) and tween Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair), they’re a month out from the death of their mom and things aren’t going well. The girls are finally heading back to school, and Will is again seeing patients in his home office, but communication between the trio is at an all-time low (that Will sends Sadie and Sawyer to another therapist, because he is unable to talk to them about their pain, is one of the film’s most compelling bits). Enter: Lester.

When the ruined husband and father appears in Will’s office, even he — the most repressed man in the world — can’t deny him. And then Lester starts spinning a tale about a monster who kills kids, his kids, when their parents aren’t paying enough attention to them. Sound familiar, Will? Soon, Will is ringing up the cops, Lester is alighting for the second floor of the house, and oopsie, Sadie is there too, having snuck home after a truly terrible first day back at school. Cue the creepy sounds (Russell Topal’s sound design remains nerve-shredding throughout the film), the lurking dark shadows, the slamming doors, and at least one more horrifying death. Suddenly, the Boogeyman is the Harpers’ problem, and oh, what a problem it is.

David Dastmalchian as Lester in 20th Century Studios' THE BOOGEYMAN. Photo by Patti Perret. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
“The Boogeyman”Patti Perret

And yet, while Savage’s film unmasks our monstrous baddie early (and, yes, it sure looks like a cousin of the “Quiet Place” aliens, whatever that’s worth), the perimeters of this seemingly ancient evil remain murky — we know it doesn’t like the light, but what’s the deal with the water everywhere? does it feed on grief or neglect? is it a spider, and if not, what’s the deal with the damn webs? and, really, why can’t someone just turn on some goddamn lights? After the Boogeyman starts terrorizing young Sawyer, headstrong Sadie is compelled to investigate (that Messina goes MIA during long stretches of the film is either a wily character choice or the product of bad scheduling; it’s unclear which applies here).

Thatcher (who looks a bit like Anya Taylor-Joy and sounds a lot like Emma Stone) is a captivating on-screen presence, but she’s hamstrung by a script that forces her into classically stupid situations — don’t go into the basement! why are you opening that door? turn on a goddamn light! Still, this new take on the Boogeyman story requires some kind of human hero, and Thatcher gamely steps up. As her little sis, Blair is also quite good and ably telegraphs both terror and drama without going over the top. (That no one initially believes Sawyer is, to her, just as unsettling as the monster in her house; it’s a tough line that Blair taps into with ease).

Vivien Lyra Blair as Sawyer in 20th Century Studios' THE BOOGEYMAN. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
“The Boogeyman”20th Century Studios

There’s no shortage of good ideas here, from the heavy (like how different people grieve or, in some cases, don’t grieve) to the very clever (like how kiddie nightmares can give way to actual terror), but from the second that “The Boogeyman” reveals itself, Savage’s film ceases to be interesting or scary. There’s nothing scarier than things that go bump in the night, but the terror is easily dispelled once we turn on the light and see what’s really there. That’s the lesson of King’s story, but Savage’s adaptation fails to understand that there’s nothing more frightening than the unknown.

Grade: C

Disney will release “The Boogeyman” in theaters on Friday, June 2.

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