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.Good Grief

The Boogeyman offers a tired horror theme with a reassuring end

Originally published as a short story in 1973, Stephen King’s The Boogeyman was later produced for the screen as a 28-minute short in 1982. Now King’s 53-year-old concept has been resurrected again, in an adaptation directed by horror-hand Rob Savage (Host), from a story by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck and a screenplay by Beck, Woods and Mark Heyman. From the looks of it, The Boogeyman seems to be up a little bit past its bedtime.

The mystery begins when a disheveled, haunted-looking man named Lester Billings (David Dastmalchian) arrives at the home office of psychologist Will Harper (Chris Messina) in an agitated state, claiming he has murdered his three young children. Before the surprised Dr. Harper can calm him down, the wild-eyed Billings begins rummaging through the doctor’s house, greatly upsetting Will’s two school-age daughters, then abruptly exits the movie by hanging himself in a closet.

Added to that bizarre hubbub is the fact that the Harper household is in mourning for its mother, recently killed in an auto accident. The tragedy hits especially hard for Sadie (Sophie Thatcher), a sensitive high school student laboring through her status as an artsy outsider. Simultaneously, both Sadie and her younger sister Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair) report the presence of a ghastly, spider-like creature lurking in the ceilings of their bedroom closets, waiting until the dead of night to scare the popcorn out of them. Call it the shadow monster or the dark thing or simply The Boogeyman. 

Let’s be frank. The horror effects are not very miraculous: a standard assortment of shock cuts, omnipresent darkness—the rooms are always dark, even in the daytime—and a typically annoying catalog of routine electronic burps and farts, the calling cards of the elusive BM. It’s been theorized that the contemporary horror audience is ridiculously easy to please, as long as the film touches all the familiar stylistic bases. The operative adjective is “familiar.” Maestro King himself invented much of the current vocabulary of fright, but that doesn’t necessarily grant director Savage and his crew the right to inflict The Boogeyman’s visual and narrative clichés so casually.

Despite a few semi-imaginative moments—Sawyer’s rolling light ball under her bed; Sadie’s weed-smoking coughing fit at the party and her genuinely frightening visit to the rotting Billings home, the residence of his unhinged, shotgun-toting widow (in a startling turn by actor Marin Ireland)—there’s very little open ground for aficionados seeking something fresh. The film is not strong enough visually to work on the level of pure repulsion. Audiences have lived through too many Alien and Predator lift-offs to cringe at anything as mundane as a giant spider demon hiding in a schoolgirl’s closet. Because of that, The Boogeyman is forced to exist—and excel, in its way—as a strenuously grotesque psychological portrait of vulnerable people coping with emotional distress.

The redeeming facet of this otherwise disappointing rehab is its re-purposing of some of King’s most notorious plot motifs, particularly those dealing with a ruptured family and an overwhelming sense of loss. Thatcher’s performance stands out in this pop-Freudian scream-fest as something to hang onto. When Sadie defends herself and her sister with a hockey stick from the sticky, corner-dwelling beastie, she’s behaving heroically in a landscape suddenly gone strange and remote. After their father’s near-death experience makes everything clear to the daughters, it’s up to them to rescue the family.

The monster Sadie is dealing with is grief itself, which can be overcome. The Boogeyman, conceived in the midst of the “Me Decade,” now looks like a letter from a faraway home, that place to which its characters can never return. It may seem like a carnival of derivatives, but its well-thumbed concept has an oddly reassuring ring: Don’t hold on to sadness, let it out. Grief may come in the form of an ugly nightmare, but it is a friend.

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