Horror films about grief are becoming the standard these days but the genre as a whole outside of film has been doing so since the advent of the genre. Not to mention Stephen King’s middle name might as well be “grief master,” given his body of work. The latest adaptation of King’s work into a movie, The Boogeyman, explores this as well. Directed by Rob Savage, The Boogeyman is written by Scott Beck, Bryan Woods, and Mark Heyman and solidly blends a thriller pacing with horror trappings, bringing King’s short story to life.
The film follows the Harper family as they attempt to return to normal life after a tragedy. Centering on high school student Sadie Harper (Sophie Thatcher) and her younger sister Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair) are reeling from the recent death of their mother mostly alone. Despite their father Will (Chris Messina) being a therapist, he can barely handle his own pain let alone help his daughter through theirs. When a desperate patient named Lester (David Dastmalchian) unexpectedly shows up at their home seeking help, he leaves behind a terrifying supernatural entity that preys on families and feeds on the suffering of its victims.
Using the family’s pain as a foothold to step into their life, the entity stalks the children, altering its voice to coax them into trust before harming them. Playing with its food for the course of the film, the audience watches as the titular creature gets darker and darker, affecting the girls’ quality of life. However, instead of listening to his daughters, Will is stuck on what he thinks will help them. While Sadie and Sawyer try to find out what the entity is and get rid of it, their father is more focused on throwing out his wife’s belongings. But in all of this, it’s clear that Will isn’t the villain. He’s a husband with daughters he never knew he would raise on his own and trying to heal his own wounds of losing the love of his life.
This dynamic is important because The Boogeyman doesn’t cast judgment outright on how its characters process their grief. Instead, it only pushes them to listen to each other. If they don’t share their pain with one another, they can at least listen to someone else’s. There is no reprimanding, just a push to understand and be together. While this theme is overt in the film’s finale, the bluntness does leave some nuances unexplored. While each character and how they relate to each other is a good start, they never dive deeper than just the surface. Sadie gets some development, but their process becomes more set dressing for scares. Still, The Boogeyman delivers on the scares it sacrifices some of its narrative. And that is its own kind of balance, right?
PG-13 horror is important, and I have always believed that. It allows younger audiences to explore tough topics through a visual language that just may help with what they’re dealing with in their own life. Regardless of well-trodden tropes that The Boogeyman embraces, it gets PG-13 right by embracing who the audience can speak to. There are sure to be some comparisons to Jennifer Kent’s The Babdook, but that film was told through the eyes of a parent being eaten alive by their grief. In this film, we see that same ravenous force through the eyes of children looking for guidance and not getting it. The Boogeyman isn’t revolutionary, but it is damn good, primarily because it embraces its rating without any fear.
While the opening scene is a shocking one, the rest of the film embraces the use of the dark and jump scares in order to work within the rating system for the better. It’s easy to slam jump scares, but when tension has been built with darkness and sound, a good jump scare is actually unbeatable—especially in a theater setting. The Boogeyman taps into that fear of the dark to build up thrilling jump moments and make you as anxious as the characters in the film. Some scares are expected, but others come like a slow, creeping build.
Additionally, the choice to show the boogeyman himself is one I didn’t think would initially pay off. While some effects work in the climactic final scene weren’t as polished as they could be, it all still works. The titular creature manages to be menacing and anxiety-inducing in a way that you can only get when you show a monster. This choice, the one I questioned, pays off nearly perfectly.
The Boogeyman’s scares also succeed because of its cast, primarily Thatcher and Blair as Sadie and Sawyer are fantastically frightened. Their ability to be vulnerable and scared in visceral ways makes the jump scares work. Their acting sells every moment of fear, and the effective use of lighting immerses the audience. As they look for the light to get safe, so do you as they look at the two beads of yellow stalking in the background. The film isn’t the perfect scare, but it is excellently frightening.
The Boogeyman is playing in theaters nationwide June 2, 2023 and on Hulu later this year.
The film isn’t the perfect scare, but it is excellently frightening.
Kate Sánchez is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of But Why Tho? A Geek Community. There, she coordinates film, television, anime, and manga coverage. Kate is also a freelance journalist writing features on video games, anime, and film. Her focus as a critic is championing animation and international films and television series for inclusion in awards cycles.