The grief monster lives inside the house. Based on a 12-page short story by Stephen King from the 1970s that obscures the nightmare between supernatural and psychological, The Boogeyman (2023) is a lean and enjoyable 90-minute horror that is as good a theatre experience as you’ll find right now. There is no obscurity here, as screenwriters Scott Beck, Bryan Woods, and Mark Heyman begin with a horrific cold open that leaves little doubt about the threat at the centre of the film.
The Boogeyman follows a similar trajectory to most Stephen King stories – familial grief made manifest, a central car crash, overlooked teens, etc – but it’s in execution where the film thrives. After the sudden passing of their mother in a car crash, the Harper family of teenager Sadie (Sophie Thatcher), much younger Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair), and father Will (Chris Messina) are struggling to cope in the aftermath, leaving them vulnerable to the presence of a looming spectre in the dark. The film is light on narrative invention, but has some of the most impressively creative horror set pieces that engages an audience far more than the story.
Emerging onto the scene with the impressively minimalist Covid horror film Host (2020), Rob Savage weaponised the familiar with Zoom calls and our collective sense of isolation during the pandemic that made it so effective. Given a studio budget and higher-level actors to work with, the filmmaker created an effective horror film that should stand as one of the year’s best. Savage’s impressive use of light and negative space that he flexed in Host (especially in its constraints), is heightened in The Boogeyman, especially through the use of unique light sources in the set pieces like Sawyer’s light ball, a PlayStation game, or the therapist’s red pulsating light pillar that ratchets up the tension greatly.
Looking for narrative invention and complexity in a film titled The Boogeyman is like searching for water in the Sahara, and Savage is acutely aware of this. The film’s narrative simplicity strips it down to its base elements of a grief-addled family and a monster feeding off their pain, allowing the set pieces and creative execution to thrive. Feeling much like a short story that hastily needs connective tissue to leap to its heightened moments, the film takes narrative shortcuts to arrive at its impressive set pieces. This is not uncommon in the horror genre, but in a post-Get Out (2017) world, its lack of self-awareness is surprising, especially in its very post-2020s setup of therapy and grief.
Supported by a solid all-around cast, Thatcher and Blair are terrific as the mourning sisters. Sophie Thatcher in particular, in her first lead film role since breaking out in the TV series Yellowjackets (2021), holds the movie together with a combination of teenage resolve and raw open nerve that is always engaging. Horror has long been a genre that’s allowed young actors to break out, and Thatcher’s performance here is one of the more impressive in recent years.
The Boogeyman is another in a long run of recent film and television centred on therapy, which while an important addition to culture to lessen the stigma, it makes for a collection of tired tropes with little insight. Will is a therapist, which certainly heightens his fear of opening up to his daughters about the sudden passing of his wife and their mother, but is hollow as a character (something not uncommon with adults in King stories). The depictions of therapists in the film, Will and Dr Weller (LisaGay Hamilton), are harsh and broad, ultimately hurting the characterisation of the profession instead of illuminating it.
Despite its narrative flaws and simplicities, it’s hard not to get swept up in the enjoyment and genre craft on display in The Boogeyman, from a recent emerging talent in Rob Savage. Comfortably levelling up to studio horror scale, Savage heightens every moment with creative set pieces that will thrill any horror fan seeking a new cinema experience.
The Boogeyman is in theatres now.