Before getting his Strider on, Viggo Mortensen had one of the most memorable recent portrayals of Satan in THE PROPHECY. In that role, he introduced himself with a wonderful taunt to the protagonist. He goaded him, saying "How I loved to listen to your sweet prayers every night. And then you'd quickly jump into your bed, because you were afraid I was under there... and I was."
Indeed, there are many irrational childhood fears that we all try to face down, before putting away childish things. The idea that we may have had it right all those years ago has been a central theme or more than a few scary movies. Every true horror fan knows the sickening truth is that there really are monsters out there. They may not have fangs or claws, they may not drink the blood of virgins and they may not take any tangible form at all, but we all fight our own monsters every day, hopefully succeeding more often than failing. Horror films take these virtual demons and tend to give them a literal context. At its best, the horror film is a cathartic experience, simultaneously disturbing us, entertaining us and giving a necessary release.
Add BOOGEYMAN to the list of childhood monsters made flesh. Everyone has different ideas of just what the Boogeyman is, but we all have our typical perceptions. The Boogeyman is the thing that hides in the dark, waiting for the moment when you are most alone and vulnerable. It hides under the bed or in the closet, creeping up on you when the lights are out and dragging you into its own dark netherworld, a world from which you can never escape.
We meet little Timmy Jensen as he takes all the precautions needed to protect against the Big Bad. He stashes every ominous figure away that could take shape, just so he can get a good night's sleep. But alas, his imagination gets the better of him and his dad has to check to make sure he's okay. As he convinces the little tyke there is nothing in the closet, the Boogeyman himself jumps out and poses a strong rebuttal to those claims. He drags the father away and assures that this kid is never going to have a good night's sleep again.
This is Tim's version of what happened. For everyone else, the story is much less dramatic. Tim's father packed his things and left one night, abandoning him and his mother, never to return. Fifteen years go by and Tim (Barry Watson - 7TH HEAVEN) has tried hard to convince himself this is what happens, but he sticks by his story. Otherwise, Tim seems talented and successful. He has a charming and beautiful girlfriend (Tory Mussett) and things are looking up. He is also scared of his own shadow. He now has a paralyzing fear of closets and his apartment is brightly lit and has had all the interior doors removed. He even still visits the children's psychiatric ward, despite the head doctor telling him, "Look around you, there are only children here." Yes, Tim is a big puss, no question about it. Of course, he may have his reasons, so we'll reserve judgment.
After his mother passes away, Tim feels guilty for not being around for her. He returns home for the funeral and decides it may be time to face his demons. The night of the funeral, he decides to stay in his old house, which has since fallen into disrepair. He is not inside for more than a few seconds when he starts freaking out again. He sees odd flashes and begins to think the Boogeyman is after him again. If the Boogeyman were targeting him, that would be bad enough. But it appears what the Boogeyman really wants is Tim's fear, and so the monster is provoking him by threatening to take away everyone Tim cares about.
Or so we think. Remember, that the Boogeymen of our childhood were figments of our own overactive imaginations. We would not have even thought about monsters if we weren't so afraid of the dark, or more specifically the unknown things that could be hiding in it. So, as Tim has to gradually pull himself up and face his fears, we unsure of just what he is facing. Sure, we see glimpses of the monster and we sense the creepy goings on, but we are looking through Tim's eyes, and they are eyes that have been traumatized by whatever lurks in his past. Since the essence of the Boogeyman is your own mind playing tricks on you, we are unsure of Tim's sanity throughout the film. Is there really a monster taking away his friends and family, or is it Tim who is responsible for their disappearances?
At the film's best moments, we have no idea which way is up. Time and space go all topsy-turvy and we suspect that Tim really may be bonkers. The idea that he has never come to terms with his father's abandonment is certainly a good premise for a horror film, as is the idea that the Boogeyman of his youth may or may not be a literal one. Incidentally, no I'm not going to tell you which is which so stop fishing.
Psychology plays a pivotal role in BOOGEYMAN. To face the Boogeyman is to face the vestiges of your childhood that you have been unable to let go of. Even the Boogeyman itself is a loaded concept. A psychological construct that is a literal skeleton in the closet, threatening to take you away from your home, your family and everything you hold dear? Many psychologists could and likely have written volumes on the subject. Due to the surprise success of BOOGEYMAN, a sequel is already in the works and actually it could work. Here is one instance where a completely different cast would be desirable for each installment. The battle against the Boogeyman is after all, a personal one, and something that should not be repeated by the same group of people, but everyone's own individual tortured psyches.
The psychology of the film is fascinating as are some of the suspense motifs. Director Stephen Kay may get a little MTV-happy when it comes to the quick montages and there are some unfortunate CGI effects that look too jumbled. But when Kay takes things slow and easy, he does fine work. His choice of camera angles and movements are inspired. Any one of the shots featuring Tim cautiously opening the closet door looks perfect enough to be the film's poster. There are some great editing techniques in the film which further blur the edges of rational thought. Give editor John Axelrod props for working with Kay and coming out with some truly interesting cutting.
Unfortunately, Kay is not always on his game. Horror is a series of set-pieces and like many other directors, he unfortunately saves all his energy for these moments. While I salute the fact that he's giving his all, the fact is that it leaves at least a half hour of the film to wither on the vine. Any scenes that provide exposition, particularly those involving Tim's uncomfortable homecoming, look and feel all too plain. Between the jumps and scares, most transitional sequences play like so much inconsequential static. Even at 86 minutes, there are just too many dull spots.
There are also a couple of major story flaws as well. It is uncertain whether this existed in the original script or in some unfortunately truncated scenes. If a director's (or writer's) cut can restore some of these holes, I would be willing to give the film a bit higher praise. As the theatrical cut stands, the flaws would be noticeable to just about everyone.
Midway through the film, Tim spontaneously enters a house, saying he remembers it from his youth. He goes inside and starts off-handedly relating stories about the person who lived there, how much he meant to him and how important a role he plays in the film's proceedings. In fact, much of what is discussed in this one location is absolutely crucial to the development of the characters and the progression of the film (It also leads to one predictable plot twist, but I'm keeping my mouth shut.). Unfortunately, this is the first we've heard of this person and events, and we've never seen a glimpse of this house before. The location and entire backstory is haphazardly tossed into the ring when the film has just a half hour left in its running time, and is entering the third act. Well, you just can't do that. To just throw something like this in there, without any prior explanation or even a vague foreshadowing reeks of bad storytelling. It's grabbing something out of mid-air and inserting it crookedly into the script with the hopes that it can better explain where everything is going. The deux ex machina is a pretty tired and simplified way to conclude a film, but it's even stranger to see one thrown in at the one-hour mark.
BOOGEYMAN was the first film lensed under Sam Raimi's Ghost House Pictures, the house in which Raimi gives back to the horror community by giving a chance to rising talents in the horror genre. The folks at Sony were unsure that a little horror film would have much bite at the box office and shelved it, threatening it with the same straight-to-video purgatory that many other fine horror films find themselves trapped inside. Fortunately, THE GRUDGE made a mint for the studio, to the tune of $110 million domestically. Suddenly, the floodgates were open for horror and this film, which was shot back in 2003, is another hit for the studio. Take that, RACING STRIPES.
One of things that seems to come with Ghost House, at least in these early stages, is a strong cast and crew presence from the house of Raimi. The results are for the better, trust me. The art direction in BOOGEYMAN is superb. No way these locations were this moody to start, so thank art directors Nick Bassett and Jennifer Ward, old hats from the HERCULES/XENA days (Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski from the criminally underrated SAVED! is no slouch either, by the way). Another thing that will immediately catch your ear is the clever musical score. It's an electronic score, but unlike most films that utilize this device, the score here is subtle and atmospheric. It does not call attention to itself, but it certainly adds to the best sequences. And the man doing those duties is none other than Joseph Lo Duca, who has been involved in practically every Raimi project since the original EVIL DEAD. The best holdover from the Raimi's team is none other than Lucy Lawless, who is practically unrecognizable as Tim's mother. The former XENA star was never going to get much credit beyond fan circles for her performances on that show, simply because of the series' campy overtones. Here, Lawless does another dual switch and it's quite amazing. In flashbacks, we see a nurturing but frustrated mother trying to hold everything together. In the not-so-pleasant moments, she's... well, you'll see.
Speaking of performances, I can't finish the review off without mentioning a couple surprise performances. Watson does a fine job in the lead, convincing in his portrayal of an adult that is nonetheless reduced to childlike terror from phantoms most of the world do not even acknowledge. Playing his old childhood friend, Emily Deschanel (ROSE RED, COLD MOUNTAIN) is instantly likeable, with a good emotional range and winning personality.
It is unfortunately impossible to separate the good parts of BOOGEYMAN from its many problems. Still, if it's not the horror film you should all rush out to see, it's at least a solid rental. There is a lot of noise that would cause most snobbish viewers to dismiss the film as trash. But underneath the surface are some truly intriguing notions that will likely rattle around your head for a while.