The creative constraints of the early Covid era, forcing writers and directors to maximise the minimalism of remote production, led to an inevitable and seemingly inexorable dip in quality. Stories were told on laptops or phones or both at a time when most of us wanted to escape the exhaustion of life lived on a screen, not embrace it, the overwhelming majority offering nothing more than a depressing reminder of how incredibly small our world had suddenly become.
But fresh young British director Rob Savage, using the same base tools as his far more experienced peers, found a way to turn our eyerolls into wide-eyed admiration with his ingeniously effective horror Host. Based entirely on Zoom, it told the story of group of friends who decide to do a guided seance online, and while not a single viewer will be surprised about how this turns out to be a very, very bad idea, the ways in which it descends into chaos do prove at times genuinely unexpected. It was an imperfect film but a perfect calling card, showing how much Savage can do with so little. While his rushed follow-up Dashcam was a total, at times embarrassing, bust – messy and saddled with a wildly grating lead – his closely followed Hollywood debut still arrives with more expectation than most studio horrors despite the conventional packaging.
Based on a lesser-known Stephen King short story and lumped with a title so generic it’s already been used countless times before, The Boogeyman fits into current horror trends a little too perfectly. It’s a female-led tale of grief and trauma, to be filed near 2021’s Antlers and last year’s Men and even closer to the similarly dour and metaphor-heavy Smile. Like that film it was also originally planned to be a streaming premiere but test screenings pushed it from Hulu to the big screen, which makes sense, both commercially and aesthetically, the film at least looking and breathing like the real thing.
Savage does far more than the disappointingly rote script, from A Quiet Place duo Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, deserves, as do his performers, all trying their best to distract us from the story’s grinding anonymity. It’s focused on a family, still grieving the loss of the matriarch, two daughters (Yellowjackets’ Sophie Thatcher and Bird Box’s Vivien Lyra Blair) and their therapist father (Chris Messina). When a stranger enters their home and kills himself, a new form of darkness descends, one that seems to feed off their pain. The evil that attaches itself to the family is handled with as little detail and distinctiveness as the grief that attracts it, both painted in the broadest of strokes (“I keep expecting her to walk through the door” is one of many lumberingly familiar lines). The specifics of the creature and how it operates are just too derivative for the film to ever truly escape from the shadows, predictably recycling beat after beat, almost as if it were one long game of guessing which element came from which film before it.
There are successful moments within, mostly thanks to Savage finding unique ways to frame scenes we’ve otherwise seen before. I’m not sure if anything comes close to the level of nightmare the film wants to inspire but in a film of otherwise repetitious set pieces playing with light and dark, his insistence on upending our visual expectations often pays off handsomely. Savage’s knack for atmosphere is also complemented by his skilled troupe of actors – Messina doing concerned, Thatcher doing imperiled and Blair doing terrified all very effectively – and they work hard to make the film’s heart beat (there’s also a small, nasty turn from Marin Ireland, having quite the gruelling year of it after cropping up in various states of grubby disrepair in Sundance thrillers Eileen and Birth/Rebirth). What Savage struggles with most, and this is a problem shared with his writers, is a coherent sense of place. Too often we’re left questioning the layout of the house and the whereabouts of those inside it – how could this happen here or why is no one hearing this happen there – and while it might sound like a relatively minor complaint, suspense is frequently killed by confusion (Messina’s character is absent for such a long stretch, I wondered if I’d missed something). It’s needlessly sloppy for a film that otherwise looks so impressive.
Outside of Savage’s visual verve, there’s really little else to The Boogeyman, its attempt to use its central villain as a metaphor for emotional trauma never working quite as well as it did in last year’s Smile (horror as therapy is getting a tad exhausting in general). It ultimately works best as further proof of his ability as a genre film-maker, sleekly gliding from a laptop to the big screen, better things to surely come.
The Boogeyman is out in US and UK cinemas on 2 June
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