If You Like “The Boogeyman,” Try These Three Frightening Films About Fundamental Fears That May Chill You to Your Core.
More than 40 years ago, John Carpenter’s creation of Michael Myers in the original slasher classic Halloween gave a distinct, unsettling face to what we would call the Boogeyman for so many sequels and so many years to come.
And over time, that figure has taken on many shapes, whether human or more creature-like, but whatever its appearance, each iteration of the boogeyman has had one thing in common with the others: it’s the sort of nightmare fuel certain to plague your dreams.
Cover your face with your bedroom blankets as much as you’d like, but know that the boogeyman lies in wait.
Yet interestingly, beneath the surface, the boogeyman has always been planted in some other fear than the physical monster itself, usually rooted in fundamental fears that remain central to that of the young, the old, the weak, the intellectual, and even the incidental.
Such as it is with Rob Savage’s latest foray into frightening genre filmmaking, The Boogeyman, a cinematic adaptation of the short story by literature’s favorite boogeyman Stephen King.
The Boogeyman finds Sadie Harper (Sophie Thatcher) and her younger sister Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair) terrorized by an inexplicable creature that appears to feed on the heartache of its victims. And for their own part, Sadie and Sawyer have been tormented enough before now, haunted by the grief that they carry with them over the recent death of their mother. They’re rather rudderless in this regard, aided minimally by their father (Chris Messina), a troubled therapist at odds with some emotional troubles of his own.
These deep-seated traumas are what allow Savage’s film to transcend that of a seemingly one-dimensional supernatural thriller. The picture’s focus is less on the physical embodiment of the boogeyman itself and instead on a metaphorical exploration of the debilitating nature of mourning, how the monsters that ritually confront us are frequently manifested by no one else but ourselves.
And only the monster killer that resides in each of us can save us now.
So for those brave enough to confront their own demons alongside the safety of otherwise seemingly innocuous genre film, there remain more cinematic ghouls than this one, more things that go bump in the night, which is precisely how we seem to like it.
Alongside similar supernatural thrillers like Don’t Look Now (1973) and The Changeling (1980) – both of which married terrorizing tension with a thesis on the human condition – special effects wizard Stan Winston’s directorial debut provided both a horrifying and pensive addition to the genre.
Before 1988, Winston had already sharpened his teeth as a special effects wizard on films like Dead & Buried (1981) and Starman (1984), as well as worked in an uncredited capacity on films like The Thing (1982), Friday the 13th Part III (1982), and Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), among others. And each of these films holds a revered place in genre filmmaking.
When it came to bringing Pumpkinhead to the big screen, Winston and his crew told the story of Ed Harley – played by Lance Henriksen, no stranger to genre films with credits like Aliens (1986) and Near Dark (1987) lining his résumé – a backwoods single father of a young boy who is mortally wounded by reckless teenagers making their way through the area.
After the death of young Billy (Matthew Hurley), the elder Harley seeks out a local witch woman in the hope that she may resurrect his dead son, but when he is told that that dark power is beyond her ability, he asks her instead to invoke the supernatural creature known as Pumpkinhead, who will bring assured revenge against his son’s killers.
And avenge the death of young Billy, the demonic Pumpkinhead certainly does, but not before Ed Harley begins to regret his supernatural request.
Winston’s film, then, becomes not only a snapshot of the grief that can consume a parent trapped in the throes of the bargaining process but also a portrait of the recognition of mourning itself. The loss of a loved one will undoubtedly inspire heartache – that reality cannot be ignored, and Pumpkinhead demonstrates that as a creature feature revenge film.
But no heartache and no requested retribution will replace the loss of that loved one, a harsh realization that Winston’s film illuminates in a dramatically horrific fashion.
Pumpkinhead brilliantly highlights the truth that a tenuous control over the supernatural will never be enough to wipe clean the memory of mourning.
It was only a matter of time before one of the masterminds of indie filmmaking behind The Blair Witch Project (1999) decided to return to the remote regions of the dark woods in order to explore what lies in wait there. And when co-screenwriter slash director Eduardo Sánchez opted to tell the story of yet another group of young people terrorized by those things that lurk in the shadows of the night, the project itself would look much different from the hand-held production that catapulted the filmmaker and his partner Daniel Myrick to stardom 15 years earlier.
Exists is the story of a group of friends on a camping trip in East Texas, and while driving on a forest road, the group’s vehicle hits an unidentifiable creature. When they stop to investigate their collision, they hear disturbing animal cries in the distance but dismiss them, only to discover much later that their vehicle had struck and killed an infant sasquatch – or Bigfoot – and that they are now hunted by the grieving, vengeful guardian of the creature.
Here, Sánchez flips the script of what one would ordinarily anticipate from a horror film by transforming the protagonist of the film from the human so-called heroes to the creatures themselves.
The result is just as effective.
Certainly, the narrative doesn’t portray its human characters as repellant or disreputable, nor does the film rob its creatures of any semblance of humanity. On the contrary, Exists operates with a certain ambiguity of allegiance on the viewer’s part, never laying its thumb on the scale in order to curry favor for the humans or the so-called monsters, instead presenting a conflict that truly demands reflection and reconsideration.
In doing so, the film conjures a dread in the viewer that is incredibly palpable.
Too often, we see creature features as a simple equation in which the non-human characters are obviously evil or abhorrent. But here, Exists fosters the fear that the viewer cannot so easily define the film’s heroes and villains, and that creates a discomfort otherwise rare in horror.
For too long, viewers have had their terror generated in easily digestible portions. However, a truly terrifying experience – one should understand – will include ingredients frequently absent from other genre films. They are ingredients one shouldn’t have to hunt for in the darkest forests of the night.
Therein lies the fundamental fear that makes the picture work — that not knowing is precisely what should horrify the viewer most.
Sometimes, as Shakespeare wrote, “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions (“Hamlet,” IV.v).” And Scott Cooper’s supernatural film (produced by none other than Guillermo del Toro) Antlers checks so many boxes when it comes to overwhelming the viewer with both imagined terrors and horrors that seem to hit a little too close to home.
The film tells the unsettling story of Julie Meadows (Keri Russell), a small-town school teacher who has become increasingly alarmed by the bizarre behavior and terrifying drawings of her student Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas). While she attempts to make a connection with the boy, she begins to suspect that Lucas may be the victim of homegrown abuse that reminds her of her own experiences at the hands of an alcoholic father.
Meanwhile, the recent suicide of her father that prompted her to return to Crispus Falls – where she will also tend to the emotional wounds of her sheriff brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), whom she abandoned years ago – adds additional drama to her situation.
Despite one’s best intentions, there remains a reality that we cannot save everyone – even if we are equipped to combat adversities in the first place – and Antlers nurtures that fear throughout.
The nurturing nature of a school is common enough, but here, the film highlights the genuine – and very human – dread of the human condition: that all of one’s growth and maturity and experience may be powerless in affecting some sort of solution to a very sinister snapshot of genre filmmaking.
Where horror films may fail to startle with their exaggerated creatures and jump scares, they possess the potential to illuminate very real terrors that will follow the viewer long after they leave the theater, for years after they’ve left the darkened woods.