It had to have been electrifying to be an avid horror aficionado in 1973 and encounter the short story “The Boogeyman” by a fright-foisting upstart named Stephen King. Taut, grim, detailed, eerily matter-of-fact, inspired by childhood fears but soaked in grown-up nightmares, it’s the work of someone eager to inject a timeless form with new blood. (It would eventually stand out in his first published collection of stories, 1978’s “Night Shift.”)
The 2023 film version of “The Boogeyman,” however — getting a theatrical release after originally being intended for streaming only — is something less inspired, just one more neatly packaged, PG-13 date night entry in a cost-effective, money-minting genre, serviceably fitting a very common, slick horror paradigm: shock mechanics, CGI, and simplistic psychology are more important than any abiding sense of dread or inconceivable terror.
Granted, unremarkable adaptations of Stephen King are practically their own category, and every time interest fades in doing right by him onscreen, a hit comes along — in this case, the two massively popular “It” films — to inspire more attempts. “The Boogeyman,” directed by Rob Savage and adapted by Mark Heyman, Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, was always going to be tough to make cinematic, considering the original story is set entirely in a therapist’s office. But the resulting expansion falls prey to that iffiest of modern-day horror movie conventions: an “opening up” narrative that too often feels like a shutting down of what’s truly scary.
After a sleekly unnerving opening scene drawn from the evil depicted in King’s pages, we turn to the house of the Harper family, a solemn (and solemnly lit) Craftsman two-story where teenager Sadie (Sophie Thatcher) and her younger sister Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair) are still mourning the loss of their mother in a tragic accident the month prior. Their therapist father Will (Chris Messina) puts on a brave front as he sees patients in his home office and pushes the girls back into a school routine — where Sadie is unprepared for well-wishers or teasing — but it’s clear dad is in no shape to address his daughters’ or his own loss.
Something is paying attention to the girls, however, particularly Sawyer, who detects a menacing presence in the shadows and sleeps with a big lit ball that you’d have to say is more convenient toy for the director’s reveal-scares than a kid’s security object. Sadie, who would love nothing more than to discover her mom as a ghost, doesn’t buy her sister’s insistence there’s a monster in the house. But in doing her own investigating after a freaky incident in their home with a creepy stranger (David Dastmalchian), Sadie comes to realize there may be a lethal malevolence in the house worth addressing, and — because horror is now as good-versus-evil-driven as any superhero movie — worth combating and killing.
Familiarity doesn’t always preclude craftsmanship, and when “The Boogeyman” is in haunted-house mode, Savage and cinematographer Eli Born work the framing, the light sources and the shadows with admirable care and patience, even if the loudly scored jump shocks are perhaps one too many. But as soon as it segues to monster movie — screenwriting team Beck and Woods are the “A Quiet Place” guys — a woeful metaphoric derivativeness takes over as swiftly as icky black tendrils spread across the Harpers’ walls and ceiling. The race to the end is certainly technically proficient, and all the actors gamely play out the ride (including an acid-tangy Marin Ireland making the most of her two scenes). But it’s not horror anymore — more like a medical drama with a race-against-time diagnosis and cure — and ultimately no memorable deepening of King’s ruthlessly efficient, vividly sketched black hole.
Rating: PG-13 for terror, violent content, teen drug use and some strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Playing: starts June 2 in general release
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