Once a year since 2020, Broadband Choices conduct ‘The Science of Scare Project’ to determine the scariest films of all time under the most scientific measures possible. Researchers curate a list of what’s likely to have the biggest universal impact among 250 participants who are shown the films in specially customised “screaming rooms”, with their heart rates monitored during the experience.
In the 2022 update of the list, two of Rob Savage’s films made the list, with Dashcam coming in at eighth and Host holding the illustrious top spot. With The Boogeyman being Savage’s first Stephen King adaptation, expectations are understandably high. One of the glaring problems with it, though, is that it feels like it exists as the result of an experiment itself. It’s almost as if it was created in a lab to include all the stuff that’s scared us in the past, and the result is that it struggles to hold any kind of identity.
The story sees a teenage girl, Sadie (Sophie Thatcher), at the centre of a family with an already sizeable recent history of trauma. Her father, Will (Chris Messina) is given the unenviable role of a newly-single parent balancing the new dynamics of a family without a mother and the demands of working as a therapist. The youngest member of the family is Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair), who is understandably overwhelmed by it all as a child who doesn’t yet understand how or why things are changing around her, something which becomes an easy reason to dismiss the very real fears and concerns that come after we meet Lester (David Dastmalchian).
Lester is a patient of Will’s with his own family history of trauma. All three of his children died of unrelated causes when left alone in their bedrooms – begging the question of why he kept leaving them alone in their bedrooms, to be fair. The scary thing is that they had all cried “Boogeyman!” upon being left alone, and they were all discovered in their rooms with the doors shut despite Lester being adamant that he’d left the doors ajar. Again, begging the question of why he kept repeating the same behaviour, especially after hearing the same cry more than once. When Lester turns up at Will’s house desperate for help, the evil entity is released into the family.
This is where The Boogeyman begins to lose its own identity in favour of just presenting what’s scared us in the past. Sadie’s school troubles are from Carrie, there are scary-face jump-scares from Insidious, camera angles from The Evil Dead. There are even a couple of sequences that nod back to the gone-but-not-forgotten found footage movement among a handful of other overly familiar set pieces.
Not only does the film as a whole struggle to find an identity because of that, but its titular villain does too. In the beginning it’s presented as an other-worldly entity which has some kind of implied supernatural ability. It lives in the shadows and is only a threat to us when we’re surrounded by darkness. It’s almost as if it is the darkness itself – a suitably unsettling concept for a story of this kind.
In order to facilitate a fight scene that isn’t far away from what we’ve already seen in Aliens, however, we learn that The Boogeyman has just been a biological creature all along. The dialogue begins to err dangerously close to the “If it bleeds, we can kill it” line from Predator, but the lasting effect is that the fear garnered from a false impression of what The Boogeyman is dissipates entirely.
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One of the only saving graces beyond its often disappointing scare-first presentation is the character of Sawyer. Vivien Lyra Blair gives a standout performance in an otherwise dull film, providing heaps of comic relief that would have felt far more necessary if The Boogeyman had achieved its aim of being anywhere near as unsettling as the films it borrows so many elements from.
Judging a horror film solely on whether it’s scary or not doesn’t feel like an entirely fair standard to uphold, partly because it’s such a subjective feeling. The best films in the genre live beyond whether they’re able to create an experience that genuinely frightens us or not, but The Boogeyman just doesn’t have much substance when its scares aren’t landing. Everything it does is in an effort to make us jump or to put us on the edges of our seats, and it seems quite obvious that its only purpose lives and dies with its ability to achieve that or not.
The Boogeyman is out now in cinemas.