The Boogeyman is a mood. Based on the short story of the same name by Stephen King, the film is a grounded supernatural drama, the rare summer horror movie that finds room for both trauma exploration and a nightmarish shadow monster. A pair of striking performances, from Yellowjackets’ Sophie Thatcher and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s Vivien Lyra Blair, ground the haunted hijinks in the perspective of two young women dealing with… let’s say an overwhelming amount of life piled on top of them all at once.
As the state of horror veers toward the extreme/high-concept, with breakouts like Barbarian and M3GAN proving audiences will go wherever the hell a visionary maniac will take them, the latest from Shudder-friendly filmmaker Rob Savage (Host, Dashcam) feels like a gamble. The Boogeyman is buttoned-up and polished — not what fans might expect from Savage, the guy who shot a horror flick using only Zoom, but arguably the sign of a versatile filmmaker. 20th Century Studios seems to agree; though The Boogeyman was reportedly shot and targeted for a streaming release, it was eventually bumped up to the theatrical release calendar.
Why was a throwback Stephen King studio movie the obvious choice for an indie darling, a director known to cult horror enthusiasts for challenging formal norms and embracing abrasive filmmaking? (Dashcam rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, and Savage knows it.) Where was there room to play? Given what an exciting voice Savage is in horror right now, Polygon jump(scared) at the chance to talk to him about what he brought to The Boogeyman.
[Ed. note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
Polygon: The Boogeyman feels like a left turn after your previous two indie horror movies. It’s exciting. Why was this the one to do next?
Rob Savage: My initial reaction was: The only reason to do a movie called The Boogeyman when there have been a thousand boogeyman movies was to make the definitive version. So it couldn’t be something that felt locked into 2023. I didn’t want it to feel of its time, but like something completely timeless. So I was looking at a lot of movies from the 1960s and the ’70s, and these movies that are still terrifying to this day. There’s a kind of beautiful simplicity to them that I wanted to achieve with this movie. And to be honest, I knew that if I made it scary enough, I could do Ordinary People if I did Poltergeist as well. That was really the pitch.
Your films seem to start with visual conceits. Host is told through a Zoom window. Dashcam uses an Uber dashcam. Your short Dawn of the Deaf subverts zombie tropes with deaf characters. The Boogeyman has a more classic feel, but were you still thinking about it in a similar form-first way?
I’m driven by visual storytelling. The filmmakers that I was inspired by when I first picked up a camera, filmmakers like [Alfred] Hitchcock and [Dario] Argento and [Brian] De Palma, were filmmakers who really lead with their visuals. And so in working on the script with Mark Heyman, who did the drafts of this movie that I oversaw, I would send him storyboards, scribbles, images, scenes from movies that evoked a similar feeling, or the kind of feeling I wanted to elicit in audiences. I wanted to make audiences feel like that kid again, waking up in the middle of the night, looking into the dark corner of their room and imagining there’s something there. I was always trying to figure out how we could play with that kind of subjective experience and put the audience into that feeling of helplessness again, because we’ve all been that kid, we all remember that fear.
The early images of the movie were really about taking areas of darkness in the frame and asking how we could give those presence. This idea of the eyes staring out of the darkness, just hinting at the shape there. It was an attempt at replicating that feeling when you wake up in the middle of the night and your eyes are adjusting. And you’ve draped your jacket over the back of a chair, and it kind of looks like a person standing in your room. I wanted to find ways to evoke these childhood memories.
What is a scare? When you are constructing scenes in a movie, how are you thinking of devising a scare?
There are scares and there are jump scares. I love them both. I think a jump scare is much more about film language. It’s about knowing what the audience is expecting — you’re almost playing a game with the audience. They’re guessing where the scares will come from, and you’re kind of leading them down a path that feels vaguely familiar, then subverting their expectation. I think it’s always about taking a familiar, safe space and perverting it somehow. Making the home, especially the bed where you sleep, an area of terror, that’s always fertile ground.
It’s also about giving the audience images that are going to grow in their brain after they’ve seen the movie. A lot of the time, jump scares are self-contained. You don’t really need to give much energy to them after they’ve concluded. But there are some images that stick with you when you go home, when your apartment is dark and you want to turn on all the lights. In this movie, it’s the eyes in the darkness. And also the scene where Sophie is in the kitchen and you’ve got the lights from the cars going by, and you see just a passing glimpse of this creature. Which is one of the first times we see the creature — I knew that would stick in audience’s minds. It’s almost like an inkblot test. You show them just enough of something that their mind does the rest.
You get a ton of mileage out of a light ball, which the youngest daughter bowls into various dark corners. That feels like a real thing, but did you invent it?
That’s a real thing. We just ordered that from Amazon. It was such a last-minute thing. Originally, it was meant to be a toy lightsaber fritzing out and malfunctioning. But then I forgot that she was Princess Leia [in Disney Plus’ Obi-Wan Kenobi] and Disney, which I totally understand, didn’t want Princess Leia holding a shitty lightsaber. So we just Googled, like, “kids’ toys that light up.” We rewrote the scenes in an afternoon, and it ended up becoming, like, the best thing in the movie.
What did you glean from the Stephen King short story, or his general approach to horror?
I wanted the ways that we’re extrapolating the short story to feel true to the themes that he was discussing. I wanted this film to feel like it was a real intersection of the real world — horror and trauma, just like the short story — and this fantastical boogeyman character. That meant making sure that all the stuff we were inventing that wasn’t in the short story felt like it sat shoulder to shoulder with all of the other King adaptations, that it felt like King through and through. A lot of that was just about dealing with the characters in a way that was thoughtful, and that there wasn’t a nihilism to this movie, that there was a hopeful note in there as well. Which is something King always does really beautifully. He’s never a cynical writer.
Your take on the short story “The Boogeyman” leaned harder into King’s cosmic-horror impulses and reminded me of the world-building in the Dark Tower series. Were you looking at H.P. Lovecraft, too?
Lovecraft was something we were going for in the third act. We had this Boogeyman creature that we created, and I wanted there to be this moment at the end where you realize that what you’ve seen on screen is only a fraction of what this thing can do, and that there are aspects to this thing you can’t possibly understand. There’s a cosmic-horror element that reveals itself when the creature starts to finally attack [Sophie Thatcher’s character] Sadie one-on-one. We went very weird and body-horror with it. I still can’t believe we did it.
I would put The Boogeyman in the “creature feature” category, which in my estimation has been on the decline in the last decade. Nope might count, Crawl is in there, but not too many monsters stalking unsuspecting victims in studio movies today. Do you think there’s an inherent challenge to that subgenre? How did you navigate it?
It’s hard with creature features, because if you can punch the thing in the face, it’s inherently less scary. So the kind of physicality of a creature is definitely less scary than something supernatural that’s unknown. And so we wanted to make sure that even though it’s a physical creature, in the end, it had supernatural elements to it. This thing could materialize wherever there’s darkness, and it’s able to follow her to reach the house. Even though it’s a creature feature — and it definitely is a creature feature — it goes there at the end. I wanted it to feel like a classic ’70s haunted house movie for most of the run time.
As younger filmmakers find their footing in the studio world, I see the sophisticated language of video games creep into film visuals more and more. As a person who likely grew up around Resident Evil as much as Hitchcock, do any games feel foundational to you? Did you look to any of them before making The Boogeyman?
I will say: I’ve just found myself playing and replaying the Last of Us games. And so I wouldn’t say I’m influenced by video games, but I’m hugely influenced by the Last of Us games. I’m constantly referencing those in every movie I make. I’m sending people playthroughs of certain scenes — there are scenes in The Boogeyman where me and Eli [Born, cinematographer] were geeking out about certain stealth scenes in The Last of Us. It’s an incredibly well-done horror game, probably the best game of all time. They’re so involving, and to give the audience that feeling of subjectivity... I think only video games can really do that. But if you can get even a fraction of that across in a horror movie, you really terrify the audience.