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Sophie Thatcher as Sadie Harper holding a lighter to illuminate a dark hallway in The Boogeyman Photo: Patti Perret/20th Century Studios

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The Boogeyman is a better Dark Tower movie than the Dark Tower movie

Sophie Thatcher and cosmic horror elevate this horror creature feature

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Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

Stephen King devoted more than 4,000 pages to detailing the fantasy world of The Dark Tower, and yet by the end of Roland Deschain’s journey to the tower, there was still space shrouded in shadow. Specifically, todash space.

Before I understood “cosmic horror” as the defining mode of H.P. Lovecraft, King mesmerized me with the promise of a darkness between worlds, where violent titans lurked and an unlucky few lived out an eternity in foggy hell. The idea of todash creeps into other King books — The Mist and From a Buick 8 are biggies — but it’s always looming in the late Dark Tower novels. As Roland and his and ka-tet, Eddie, Susannah, and Jake, eventually learn, ancient advanced societies of Roland’s “Mid-World” parallel universe found ways to breach the fabric between realities and reach the todash space, and every being who beheld it seems to have agreed that it’s pure terror. The takeaway from the Dark Tower books: The unknown is better left unknown, and if the todash’s beasties ever find their way into your reality, run.

Technically, King’s cosmic world-building has nothing to do with The Boogeyman, the latest horror movie from Host and Dashcam director Rob Savage — but it was still on my mind for the full 98-minute runtime. Based on King’s short story of the same name, about a troubled father discussing his children’s death with a psychiatrist, and confessing that he believes something supernatural killed them. The Boogeyman is basically a haunted-house movie designed to scare the shit out of people via the human-forward approach that’s defined much of King’s work.

As high-schooler Sadie (Yellowjackets’ Sophie Thatcher) investigates the thing going bump at night in her sister’s closet, she’s staving off a mental anguish that she knows many other people have succumbed to. Life: it’s a lot to handle! Savage, working with writers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (A Quiet Place) and Mark Heyman (Black Swan), give Thatcher lots to chew on as the center of a psychological drama that plays a bit like a studio-friendly take on The Babadook.

But make no mistake: The Boogeyman is real, and it’s ready to kill Sadie’s family. To quote The Dark Tower’s cowboy guardians, Savage has not forgotten the face of his father. The Boogeyman understands the duality of a King story.

David Dastmalchian as Lester Billings, a disturbed father looking mad in The Boogeyman Image: 20th Century Studios

While The Dark Tower books are populated with gunslinger knights, dimensional gateways, and killer AI-empowered trains, King also finds ways to wind them back down to human concerns. The universe is imploding, but so are the daily lives of his earthbound characters as they try to stay afloat. King makes the personal hurdles of addiction or loss feel as daunting as slaying an army of robotic raiders wielding lightsabers. (Yes, there are lightsabers in the Dark Tower series.) To complete his quest to the Tower and defeat the hellish being known as the Crimson King, the hero Roland needs to cling to a found family plucked from various eras in American history and learn to be a vulnerable, loving man. He also needs to kill anything that wanders out of the todash space.

Watching The Boogeyman, I felt the Dark Tower’s brand of cosmic horror squeezing tension out of the action on screen — maybe even some that wasn’t there, since The Boogeyman is simple, straightforward, and dangerously uneventful. The adaptation starts like the short story: David Dastmalchian (Dune, Prisoners, Suicide Squad) pops up to play the father, Lester Billings, a shattered man who can’t make sense of the monstrous form that has slain his children. His psychiatrist, Will Harper (Chris Messina) can barely hear him out. His wife was recently killed in a car crash, and he and his daughters Sadie and Sawyer (Obi-Wan Kenobi’s Vivien Lyra Blair) are all mourning.

That kind of death is a tragedy millions have suffered through in real life, but movies have sanded it down into Stock Emotion. The Boogeyman doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but a second shock compounds the dizzying grief: Shortly after Lester begs Will for help, he’s found strangled to death in the doctor’s home. Cops rule it a death by suicide. Will assumes they’re right. Sawyer knows it was The Boogeyman, and as the malevolent entity makes itself known to the whole family, Sadie does too.

Vivien Lyra Blair as Sawyer Harper holding her light ball in The Boogeyman Photo: Patti Perret/20th Century Studios

The adapted version of The Boogeyman is full of classically tailored scares and creeping mood. Even more so than Lights Out or James Wan’s Conjuring movies, Savage’s take on the creature feature is buttoned up and often overextended in the attempt to keep the Harper family’s bereavement at the center of the story. The action gets a bit repetitive: In the wake of Lester’s death, the film oscillates between Boogeyman attacks in the increasingly familiar Harper home, and Sadie’s trips to school, where she’s tormented for being a sad sack who wears her dead mom’s dresses. (Are high schoolers the real monsters? Makes you think.) Savage is playful about teasing out the dark corners of the home — whoever invented the cordless light ball deserves residuals on this film, given how often it rolls into the shadows to catch the silhouette of a spindly monster — but eventually, the jump scares wear thin.

The middle chunk might feel like a slog if not for Thatcher. From scene to scene, the 22-year-old actor conjures a sense of dread on cue, then shifts gears into the emo-teen energy an indie version of the movie might require. When the monster appears, she bursts into protector mode with full fire behind her eyes. Between Yellowjackets and The Boogeyman, I’m convinced she’s following in the footsteps of Sigourney Weaver and Jamie Lee Curtis as a do-it-all genre star.

Wrapped around this is the big what-if of the movie that I couldn’t shake: What is the Boogeyman? Where is the Boogeyman? Why is the Boogeyman? The film isn’t one of the great entries in the Grief Horror subgenre, but it might be exceptional King storytelling for how much it does and does not explain on that front. There are no walk-on cameos from Salem’s Lot characters to explain that our characters are fighting a being from the todash space, but when you know it’s King, you can’t help but wonder.

Because King so casually and constantly inserts Dark Tower crossover elements into otherwise unrelated work, it’s become easy to fill in lapses of logic with Dark Tower lore and see the characters as a bit deeper than they really are. Savage successfully bends the cosmic-horror element to his will in The Boogeyman, and for fans of King’s world(s), it’s fair to call it the best Dark Tower movie ever made — at least until we get a real one. Wait... they did what now?

The Boogeyman opens in theaters on June 2.

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