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MOURNING HAS BROKEN
The Boogeyman (15)
Director: Rob Savage
Screenplay: Scott Beck, Bryan Woods, Mark Heyman
Starring: Sophie Thatcher, Chris Messina, Vivien Lyra Blair
Review: David Stephens
It’s not the most original title in the cinematic world. The Boogeyman has notably been prominently used to describe everybody with “a particular set of skills”, right from Michael Myers to John Wick. That’s not even touching on the previously same-named horror flicks such as Ulli Lommel’s cult 1980 film, or the pedestrian 2005 offering (without a “The”) that featured Lucy Lawless and spawned two sequels that featured Tobin Bell! However, there’s a very good reason for keeping this title, being based as it is on the classic Stephen King short story of the same name. The original tale is so short and sharp, that the screenplay (co-written by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, the A Quiet Place duo) uses that premise as a seed and grows the narrative from that. Directed by Rob Savage, who made the brilliant Host and the … err … divisive Dashcam, this was originally earmarked for a streaming premiere but was upgraded to a theatrical release after early reactions. It has a talented cast including Sophie Thatcher (from Yellowjackets), Vivien Lyra Blair (from Birdbox), and genre flag-waver David Dastmalchian. Now on USA and UK screens everywhere, we took a look under the multiplex bed.
Starting with a somewhat disturbing scene-setter of a toddler being attacked in their cot by a gibbering thing that momentarily sounds like the father of the family, it then shifts focus to the Harper family. Tragically the mother was unexpectedly lost to a recent accident which has decimated the lives of the two daughters and the father. Will (Chris Messina) is a practising therapist but struggles to deal with the loss of his wife and the needs of his girls whilst continuing to counsel others in his job. The younger Sawyer (Lyra Blair) is soldiering on in that blunt way that young kids sometimes do, but teenage Sadie (Thatcher) is really hurting. Having the least supportive social circle EVER (more on which later) and a clueless Dad, she flirts with spirituality and other ways to cope with her grief. Into this environment, the brief visit of Lester Billings (a character from the original story and played by Dastmalchian) causes yet more problems. More crucially, it leads to an introduction of an ageless entity that seems to feed on the life force of those in turmoil. With their lives in peril, the Harper girls have to convince their father that it’s not just a figment of their imagination.
Remember some of those PG-13 horror films that studios used to produce in waves, every time the genre produced a box-office hit? Stuff like Darkness Falls, Mama, The Uninvited and countless others? They had their fans and “did the job” of supplying the requisite number of scares, but never really hit the target in the way that The Ring or The Sixth Sense did. Well, that’s what The Boogeyman feels like. There are flashes of excellence, some good performances, satisfyingly creepy sequences, and it’s effectively staged by Savage (who surely has a good future in the genre with major studios after this). However, this is tempered by some by-the-numbers plotting, murky cinematography, unremittingly douche-bag characters, and a lack of any real surprises.
First off, the lead performances from Thatcher and Lyra Blair are top-level. Thatcher in particular holds the weight of the film on her shoulders and provides the main POV, effectively providing a realistic presentation of massive loss in a young adult’s life. Her interactions with Messina are near faultless, as her need for support clashes with his sense of denial and avoidance. Arguably, it’s this honest depiction of emotional turmoil which are the most powerful elements of the plot and provide the narrative with its core. However, when this is primarily sold as a film about a soul-sucking “thing” that preys on kids and jumps out of closets, some might find these scenes a little off-putting. Despite that, it does give the proceedings an earnestness and depth that many horrors lack to a significant degree. In addition to Thatcher’s lynchpin role, Lyra Blair seems to be another young actress who excels in this sort of area. Her deadpan response to “How are you?” is a killer (“Just trying not to die, thanks”)
The best of the jump-scares have been inevitably (*deep sigh*) spoiled by the trailers yet again, but there are still a few good standout scenes where Savage builds up tension immaculately. The therapy-by-strobe sequence is nicely choreographed and doesn’t end the way you might think, which also goes for the initial stalker-in-the-house events triggered by Dastmalchian’s character. A couple of other innovative scenes work well, with PlayStation gunfire nicely warding off an attack (it makes sense in context) and a wonderfully surreal moment where the monster mewls pathetically as it tugs a tooth towards it on a string (again, it makes sense in the film). But disappointingly, apart from a couple of scenes like that, the frights are mostly generic and telegraphed well ahead of time. Think of a dark and murky background in which something moves indistinctly towards a character, with pinpricks of light showing its eyeline, and that’s pretty much 50% of the scary scenes accounted for.
And that’s the main issue and reason why we didn’t score this higher. For every painfully accurate moment that explores grief as a threat to existence (Boogeyman-driven or not), there is something jumping out of a dark corner in the same-old clichéd style that we have become accustomed to with studio horrors. A couple of other bogus points. Just what the hell is up with Sadie’s “friends”?! Aside from online anonymous trolls, no one is that mean, surely? Not so much BFFs, more like WFFs (Worst Fucking Friends)! Seriously! From outright ridicule and bullying to emotional torture, for someone who’s just lost a mother and witnessed a suicide! Must suck to be an American teenage girl! It comes across as “faintly” ridiculous and totally heartless. So much for sisterhood and “be kind” movements! And whilst we’re on “bugbears”. Why does no one have a torch or use an app on their phone to illuminate the area? That’s a bloody sight easier than lighting dozens of candles or using a lighter. We know it’s for atmosphere (probably), but WTF?
We’ve probably been a bit hard on logistics (and in a supernatural horror film no less), but that’s only because of the existing strengths and the effectiveness of some of the sequences. The Boogeyman itself is pleasingly creepy enough, having a physicality and strangeness to it that is usually missing from generic CGI spooks. It would have been nice to dwell on its mythology a bit more. If it’s been around forever, why is there only evidence that its attacked one modern family? As such, aside from the emotional interjections, the plot follows the usual pattern. The lead character experiences tragedy – something weird happens – the lead character sleuths the weirdness – climactic confrontation. It’s perfectly fine for a PG-rated genre fix, but it doesn’t live up to the initial hype or bring anything new to the party… apart from the fact that life sucks and some teenage girls are absolute ****s!
Some atmospheric sequences and solid performances are a little let down by some generic plotting and a lack of innovation. It’s remarkably mature and earnest in all the right places, especially when exploring themes of grief and fear. However, we’re not presented with the jump-scare-fest promised by the trailers or the hype. An interesting little chiller but not a superior studio offering.
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