Boogeyman opens with one of the most effective scare sequences in recent memory, one that recalls us to the fears of childhood and sets the tone for the rest of the picture. In the traditional old, dark house, eight-year-old Timmy (Caden St. Clair) is in bed, too scared to sleep. Commonplace items in the room take on a sinister appearance until he turns on his bedside lamp, revealing the hulking shape across the room to be just a chair strewn with clothes and sporting equipment. But when he turns the lamp back off, the shape begins to move toward him. Switch the light back on, and the shape collapses to the floor, an innocent bathrobe. It’s a clever illustration of the ways in which, as children and even sometimes as adults, we can believe that the forms we see in a dark room might be alive and wicked; the ways a fertile imagination can even trick us into believing we see it shift its weight, sharpen its claws, and lick its lips in anticipation. This being a horror film, it turns out that there’s more going on than an overactive imagination. Timmy causes a clatter that attracts the attention of his father, who comes in and lectures him about being scared of the Boogeyman. Daddy is then, of course, dragged into the closet by an unseen figure, never to return.
15 years later, Tim is an friendly but haunted young man, played now by Barry Watson, whose appearance and manner do a lot to suggest the boy within the man. Watson’s nose and roundish face not only match the shape and proportions of the child actor, they connect with our understanding that Tim hasn’t progressed emotionally much beyond his childhood, while Watson’s likeable, ordinary-guy quality helps us to empathize with Tim even though he’s quite possibly crazy, plagued by delusions and flashbacks to his childhood terrors.
Tim’s fears haven’t lessened with the passage of time. He lives in a studio apartment with no nooks and crannies for a monster to hide in, his clothes hang on a steel rack next to the living area, and even his refrigerator has a clear glass door. His precautions at home can’t protect him forever, though, as his girlfriend Jessica (Tory Mussett) has invited Tim to spend Thanksgiving with her family. After the necessary investigation from her father, Tim goes to his room to await a secret visit from Jessica. He’s denied the getting of his jollies, though, when his haggard mother appears to him in a dream, throwing around threats and accusations and generally scaring the crap out of him. A phone conversation with his uncle Mike confirms that Tim’s mother has just died, and he sets off for a long-delayed visit home to “sort through his mother’s things,” which, as always, translates to “confront the horrible thing that happened in the past.”
Boogeyman begins as little more than a collection of genre conventions, and it rarely strays far from formula, but it almost always uses the conventions knowingly and well. The director, Stephen T. Kay, keeps the tension ratcheted up consistently from beginning to end, though he relies too often on the jump scare to keep the audience on edge. His effects are largely borrowed from movies such as Psycho, The Exorcist, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, but he selects clichés that still have enough juice in them to evoke the effect they had on us the first time.
The plot goes down easy, with the assistance of editor John Axelrad, whose quick cutting keeps us too busy to pay much time to the film’s essential derivativeness and who understands the importance of keeping the monster offscreen for as long as possible. Bobby Bukowski’s camera work relies heavily on angles that are slightly askew and trick shots, but the style, though uninventive, is appropriate to the subject. The screenwriters, Eric Kripke, Juliet Snowden, and Stiles White (working from Kripke’s story) have few previous writing credits between them, but they have a strong feeling for the fears of childhood and the painful irony of knowing that home may be the least safe place. Their Boogeyman operates by the logic of dreams, and Kay does a credible job of creating visual equivalents to the gossamer threads of reason that intertwine in the subconscious mind, playing games with time and space that contain echoes of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.
Boogeyman is the second film produced by Ghost House Pictures, the new horror-focused production company led by Sam Raimi (the Evil Dead series, Spider-Man 1 and 2), who has a great affection for the genre. Their first film, The Grudge, was somewhat disappointing, but had a few good scares and a moody, effective visual style. Boogeyma n is a less ambitious picture, but it’s much more successful at really scaring the crap out of the audience, clearly its only goal. Some may fault Kay and company for having such a small, simple goal, but there is honor in attempting something minor and bringing it off successfully. Compared to the other horror schlock that has been tossed into theatres the past few weeks (Darkness, Hide and Seek, Alone in the Dark), Boogeyman is the only one capable of delivering a real shiver.