The Boogeyman: horror begins at home in this surprisingly effective Stephen King adaptation

Budget horror director Rob Savage’s mix of old school craft and trend-surfing savvy keep this familiar genre material from falling flat.

The Boogeyman (2023)Courtesy of Disney

The system (sometimes) works: after effectively auditioning for American studios with a pair of thriftily produced screenlife-horror features – most notably the Zoom-set shocker Host (2020) – UK-based director Rob Savage has scored himself a mid-budget Stephen King film adaptation with The Boogeyman. Such gigs are rites of passage for aspiring genre specialists, and Savage acquits himself nicely, applying a welcome, resourceful combination of old-school craft and trend-surfing savvy to genre material that, notwithstanding its pedigree, could have easily fallen flat.

As a short story, King’s The Boogeyman isn’t particularly fertile terrain: it’s a grim shaggy dog joke about a guy who walks into a psychiatrist’s practice whimpering about a malign supernatural presence and finds, for better or worse, that the shrink has a sympathetic ear. 

That hapless protagonist makes what is basically a cameo appearance in Savage’s film, which is focused instead on a high school girl, Sadie (Sophie Thatcher) mourning the tragic death of her mother in a car accident. Her father, Will (Chris Messina),  is a therapist, but he’s uninterested in processing his own grief; as father and daughter adjust to life in mourning, the disconnect between them – and its effect on Sophie’s impressionable, nyctophobic little sister Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair) – becomes a conduit for something dark and predatory to enter their home, lurking patiently in the shadows. 

At this point in the elevated-horror era, the idea of a monster manifested out of trauma is pretty rote (and was skewered as such in David Prior’s excellently satirical thriller The Empty Man (2020)). Still, with a little skill, clichés can transform halfway into archetypes, and Savage and his cinematographer Eli Born make the conceit work in visual terms. In their hands, every light source in the movie becomes a potential locus of fear, and at least two set pieces – one set at a doctor’s office, the other illuminated by the glow of a flat-screen television – are small marvels of sustained tension.

In lieu of trying to scramble the predictable narrative beats, Savage hits them precisely and with just the right amount of force, and Thatcher – who stood out amidst the ensemble of Showtime’s entertaining but uneven Yellowjackets (2021-) – has the kind of focused, melancholy presence that can galvanise an otherwise routine character. She’s particularly good in the home stretch, when – again, predictably – Sophie becomes empowered to face down her demons and finally see them for what they are. 

It’s a compliment to Savage and his collaborators that the images (and creature design) that come with Sophie’s self-actualisation are worth the wait – and also that, at a swift 95 minutes, The Boogeyman doesn’t make us wait too long.

 ► The Boogeyman is in UK cinemas now.