Rob Savage’s Horror Turns Stephen King Into ‘Stranger Things’
May 25, 2023
So you want to make an adaptation of a Stephen King story. How do you go about it? There are plenty who have tried with some creating bold visions that have gone in their own directions while others have strived to be as faithful as possible to the original text. No matter the approach, the adaptations that have endured are few and far between. Think Stanley Kubrick’s classic The Shining, a film King himself denounced, or Mike Flanagan’s more faithful Doctor Sleep, a surprisingly moving sequel, as examples of works that have each managed to stand out while taking their own distinct approaches. What made each respective film work was their shared commitment to the more subtle existential horrors that haunt the characters. We all fear that which goes bump in the night, be they from ghosts haunting a hotel or a roaming group who feed on the souls of others to survive, though it is the internal terrors that cut just as deeply. The external was merely a reflection of the pain we carry inside.
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In director Rob Savage’s The Boogeyman, King’s short story of the same name is but a launching off point. Much of this comes out of necessity as the original horror tale was confined to a single conversation that, while it packed a punch, is not enough to sustain a full feature. Where director Jeff Schiro made a low-budget short film in 1982 that mostly just adapted what was on the page to mixed results, this latest film expands far beyond that. Beyond taking the story into the modern day, it builds around the sole conversation of the story to instead explore a larger canvas. As a result, the simplicity of the creeping dread King brought to life is exchanged for a more propulsive work of horror that is less an adaptation than it is a reinterpretation that brings us from the past of the original setting into the present.
The central component about masculinity, with its posturing around strength actually betraying weakness that could lead to destruction, is both softened and molded into a more modern reflection on dealing with loss. Some of this works, mainly due to the work of the always reliable Chris Messina as a flawed patriarch who finds himself out of his depth, while other moments lack tact and end up spelling things out. Alongside this, the creature that lurks in the night becomes an embodiment of fear that is menacing in its own right. Though it is less so towards the conclusion, where we see more and more of it in a manner that tempers the terror, the fear of the unknown in much of the film still sends a shiver up the spine.
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Sophie Thatcher Must Face ‘The Boogeyman’ Alone
Image via 20th Century Studios
This all rests on the shoulders of young Sadie Harper. Played by Sophie Thatcher of the hit series Yellowjackets and the outstanding film Prospect, she must deal with both the monster lurking in the darkness as well as the recent loss of her mother. She is often tasked with looking after her younger sister Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair) as their father Will (Messina) has retreated into his work as a therapist while not talking about the pain they are all experiencing. It is in one session where a mysterious man, played to perfection by the spectacular character actor David Dastmalchian of the upcoming film Late Night with the Devil, destroys the faux tranquility Will has desperately tried to build. Playing out with key lines lifted exactly from the story, this man recounts how his children have all been killed by something that no one will believe is real. We see part of this for ourselves in the patient opening scene that uses unsettling sound design to set the tone for what it is to come. When the man finishes his story recounting this, he soon meets his end in gruesome fashion in the Harper home where much of the film takes place. However, even as he has died, there is something that he leaves behind. As Sawyer and then Sadie are tormented by this, the film effectively ratchets up the dread that comes from peering into the darkness where you know there is something peering back yet can still only barely make it out. Unfortunately, the more it goes on, the more this tension is diffused by conventional exposition and a shift into being more about the spectacle than the true scares it began with. The emotions are there, but the execution is often lacking.
Some of this feels like it is a sacrifice being made by writers Scott Beck, Bryan Woods (who recently wrote the dino action film 65) as well as Black Swan scribe Mark Heyman. A sacrifice to whom? Increasingly, it feels like it wants to appeal to a more mainstream horror audience looking to jump in their seats rather than have something linger in their minds. Where the opening scene is a standout, showing that even children can be brutally killed in the safety of their rooms, the rest of the film starts to feel like it is pulling its punches. Some of this is explained away as being about the creature playing with its food, but that explanation starts to wear thin with each successive scene that borders a bit too close to being repetitive.
The task of offering said explanations falls to the magnificent yet underutilized Marin Ireland of the disquieting upcoming horror film Birth/Rebirth. While discussions of the precise characteristics of her part in this story are best kept to a minimum to avoid spoilers, she steals the brief scattering of scenes that she gets. The unfortunate reality is that her role represents the film’s attempt to make something fundamentally unknowable into something more knowable and, thus, safe. With each new detail that is doled out in less than dexterous fashion, the more the dread can feel like it is beginning to subside. One intriguing complication involving a missing tooth that hinted at a more grim revelation is also dismissed, closing off a potentially ambitious conclusion and leaving a literal thread hanging of what could have been. Where it could have been this year’s Smile, it comes up just short.
‘The Boogeyman’ Starts Scary Before Playing It Safe
Image via 20th Century Studios
The experience of the film is then one of rises and falls where the more understated scenes are where it is as its best. As it gets bigger and more brash, it can start to feel like it is shifting into being more like the lighter fright of something like Stranger Things, with producer Shawn Levy also credited here only being the tip of the iceberg in terms of what feels familiar, than it is something like Kyle Edward Ball’s masterful recent horror Skinamarink. Obviously, this film was never going to be as patient and petrifying as that latter one was more fundamentally experimental in form. Still, there were moments where it played around with similar fears as familiar voices that still don’t sound quite right echo through the darkness. Much like Savage’s breakout hit Host, which is thankfully the film briefly referenced here instead of Dashcam, he is able to tap into something truly terrifying when not burdened by laying everything out.
Though it feels like much is being held back, as it opts for being more rah-rah than unsettling in its closing act, the craft that goes into key sequences is where it manages to mostly transcend these trappings. Be it in scenes involving flashing lights that capture only fleeting frames of impending danger or ones where pinpricks of glowing eyes foretell peril, The Boogeyman is at its best when it strips away all the excess to draw us deeper into darkness.
The Boogeyman is in theaters starting June 2.
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