The Poppies of Terra #5 - Boogeypalooza
By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
“...when Andy was one, we moved to Waterbury. The old place had too many bad memories.
And too many closets.”
–Stephen King, “The Boogeyman”
Fifty years after its original publication in the March 1973 issue of Cavalier magazine, Stephen King’s short story “The Boogeyman” has been turned into a feature film by Rob Savage (Host, Dashcam).
The story has been previously adapted as a short film, but, incredibly, this is its first full-length treatment. I say “incredibly” because of the volume of similarly-titled movies out there bearing no relation to the King tale: Ulli Lommel’s The Boogeyman (1980) and Boogeyman II (1983), the second sequel, Return of the Boogeyman (1994), along with Stephen Kay’s Boogeyman (2005) and its two sequels, Boogeyman 2 (2007) and Boogeyman 3 (2008), and the made-for-television Boogeyman (2012; alternative title The Legend of the Boogeyman).
In King’s story, a nasty dude named Lester Billings visits a shrink called Dr. Harper and tells him about the death of his three children. Though the world believes these kids died of various natural and accidental causes, Billings insists that the children were killed by a creature, and that he’s responsible because he didn’t believe them. Parental neglect really cuts this racist macho-man to the quick. Lesson learned. Fear agitates; guilt consumes.
This new film pops that kernel scene into an exploration of what happens in Will Harper’s life after Billings’ visit. Harper and his two daughters, Sadie and Sawyer, are grieving the loss of a wife and mother respectively. The titular monster, as Billings describes it in the movie, is “the thing that comes for your kids when you’re not paying attention.” You mean–sex, drugs, rock n’roll, bullying, vodka eyeballing, and TikTok challenges? I’m afraid to say it’s even worse than that, and Will Harper is definitely not paying attention.
The loss of a mother and the manifestation of an entity in the wake of this pain brings to mind A Monster Calls; trauma birthing something that exists in the dark recalls The Babadook and Lights Out; the transference, or latching on, of evil from one character to another makes us think of It Follows and the more recent Smile; the logistics of how the characters are hunted at times echoe A Quiet Place (two of the screenplay writers, Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, co-wrote that picture); a child stalked by a being born out of isolation and emerging from the shadows informs Come Play; using light to weaken the supernatural menace, along with the method of its eventual defeat, harken back to Darkness Falls; several scenes playfully homage Poltergeist; the creature’s vocal mimicry, combined with its physical extension in the form of vines or tendrils, is reminiscent of The Ruins; the ceiling molds we glimpse, with their psychological import, evoke Dark Water; there’s a line of dialogue that sounds a lot like a famous beat from Predator; and so on. As you can deduce from this partial list of influences and precursors, originality is not The Boogeyman’s priority. Duh–it’s called The Boogeyman.
But derivation is not the same as dilution.
“You could hear something moving in a stealthy way,” writes King in the original story. “But not too stealthy, because it wanted you to hear it.” This idea of malevolence choosing how much of itself to manifest, and when, so as to maximize the fear of its prey, is perennially interesting and effectively conveyed. And while leaning into grief and unresolved emotions in this type of fare is cliche, I think that the movie cleverly shifts the focus of King’s source material from crushing culpability to redemptive mediation.
As far back as The Wizard of Oz, and particularly explicit within the horror genre in, for instance, the Nightmare on Elm Street flicks, Adults are Useless. They are absurdly incredulous and invariably impotent to help children or teens when a real Threat manifests. There’s some of that in The Boogeyman, too, but it’s a starting point, not an ending. At the outset, Will Harper firmly inhabits the country of skeptical blindness. On the opposite end, youngest daughter Sawyer is incredibly sensitive and impressionable. Sadie, the Teen in Between, retains enough of an open mind to not dismiss her younger sibling's claims, but can also muster enough resourcefulness and credibility to avoid having her accounts be categorically dismissed by Dad. She is the bridge between denial and gullibility. She also connects the realms of the living with the dead, figuratively if not literally.
The film is well acted, particularly by Sophie Thatcher as Sadie and Vivien Lyra Blair as Sawyer, and is craftily directed by Savage. It sports sleek and sumptuously dark cinematography by Eli Born (Hellraiser 2022), which is important, given how much time we spend away from the light. Editor Peter Gvozdas (The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Brightburn, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It) also executes some nice moves. Each of the three main characters completes a neat emotional arc. Sure, you’ve felt these feelings before; you’ve seen variations of the main set pieces before; but last week’s dinner won't stop you from eating tonight.
On another note, when did therapy become so mainstream in movieland? Beau Is Afraid opens in session; You Hurt My Feelings, which I saw in the theater last week, features a therapist co-protagonist, whom we follow into practice several times; The Boogeyman is possibly the ultimate parable about the importance of screening clients and safeguarding patient records.
King’s story references famous Tales from the Crypt illustrator Graham Ingles by name. The movie's creature design, smartly only half-glimpsed, and much of the ambiance throughout, dwell in Ingles’ long shadow. Beyond that, look out for a gag involving the unexpected resurgence of a tooth. It takes a tasty chomp out of Ingles’ book.
And yes, the door is left, well, ajar, for a sequel.
Had to be a closet door.