When his wife dies unexpectedly, therapist Will Harper (Chris Messina, “Air”) ironically finds himself unable to connect emotionally with his own daughters. After meeting with new patient Lester Billings (David Dastmalchian, Hulu’s “Boston Strangler”) in his home office, a man distraught over the deaths of his children, Will fails to believe his youngest, 10-year-old Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair, “Bird Box”), when she begins to see the supernatural evil Lester left behind, “The Boogeyman.”
Laura's Review: C+
Stephen King’s original short story, published in his first collection ‘Night Shift’ in 1978, was the creepy confession of a cowardly, alcoholic misogynist in a therapist’s office. His story was ambiguous, leaving it to the reader to decide if his boogeyman was a manifestation of Billings’ dark soul. In adapting King’s tale, screenwriters Scott Beck & Bryan Woods (“A Quiet Place”) and Mark Heyman (“Black Swan”) have turned it into a literal monster movie and it’s all the lesser for it, the type of ‘fear of the dark’ movie whose characters nonetheless seem averse to turning a light on.
The monster in the closet Billings claimed killed his three children has been turned into something that supposedly feasts on grief, one of the world building rules the filmmakers establish and then fail to follow (for example, just why, then, was Billings’ first child targeted, Lester’s character here exhibiting none of the odious character traits he did in King’s story?). The story has been ‘opened up’ by having Lester followed into the Harper home, leaving his boogeyman behind, and yet when Sawyer’s 16 year-old sister Sadie (Sophie Thatcher, Showtime's 'Yellowjackets') goes to the notorious Billings house to investigate, she’ll find it there as well?
If the filmmakers can’t get their ground rules straight, they do offer a sincere portrait of grief in Sadie’s reaction to the loss of her mother. She tries to get through to dad unsuccessfully, coming into conflict with him by wearing her mother’s dress, then challenging his decision to close up mom’s art studio, the room where the boogeyman first appears (director Rob Savage’s (“Host”) most terrifyingly staged sequence). Sadie’s consumption of a YouTube video on connecting with spirits via a candle flame brings mom into the picture at just the right climactic moment.
The rest of the film, though, is essentially a series of jump scares, the boogeyman itself more of an alien monster than the sinister specter fashioned out of a hanging coat by the imagination. It doesn’t like the light, which explains why Sawyer sleeps with a glowing orb the size of a beach ball but not why Sadie washes dishes without an overhead kitchen light on. A ‘face your fears’ exercise conducted by Harper family therapist Dr. Weller (a welcome LisaGay Hamilton) is eerie, but nothing is said regarding its obvious failure. And while dad might be depressed, the Harper household isolates its two girls for extended periods that make no sense, Sawyer beset by the creature in her living room (with only the light of the television, naturally) in what appears to be an empty house until all hell has broken loose.
The story also seems unnecessarily padded, Sadie experiencing mean girl behavior from Natalie (Maddie Nichols), an awful person we’re supposed to believe is a mutual friend of Sadie’s and her otherwise normal seeming best friend Bethany (Madison Hu). Lester’s widow Rita (Marin Ireland, "Hell or High Water") is also featured in a sequence the movie would have been better off without.
Savage has taken care with his production, the Harper home redolent of its missing matriarch, director of photography Eli Born (“Hellraiser”) somehow allowing us to see what’s going on in all this darkness. Sound design does the job, although less may have been more here. Thatcher, who plays the teenaged version of Juliette Lewis’s Natalie in ‘Yellowjackets,’ anchors the film, growing up before our eyes protecting her sister and carrying the emotional weight her dad shrinks from. Messina, so good recently in “Air,” suffers from an underwritten character here, Will’s grief relayed as mere numbness.
“The Boogeyman” has its moments and is certainly far from the worst Stephen King adaptation, but the filmmakers have relied on too many tricks when they could have been offering unnerving treats.
Disney opens "The Boogeyman" in theaters on 6/2/2023.