September 30, 2023

Behind ‘Boogeyman’, the Stephen King based horror film that terrorized test audiences and critics

THE BOOGEYMAN, from left: Sophie Thatcher, Chris Messina, Vivien Lyra Blair, 2023. Ph: Patti Perrett /© 20th Century Studios / Courtesy of Everett Collection

Sophie Thatcher, Chris Messina and Vivien Lyra Blair The boogeyman. (Photo: Patti Perrett /© 20th Century Studios /Courtesy Everett Collection)

While 20th Century Studios conducted test screenings for its new horror movie The boogeymandirector Rob Savage noticed he had a definitive “good problem”.

The audience screamed so terrified of one of the film’s perfectly executed jump scares that they spent the next minute trying to recover from it – muttering, turning to friends, conversing, reenacting their fear.

The problem? They weren’t paying attention to the movie, and the next scene after that scare relayed information that would be critical to following the movie’s plot.

“The audience was screaming throughout the next scene, ‘Savage (Host) tells us at a recent press event in Los Angeles. “They totally missed the next scene, which is quite an important scene. So we had to fill it up [making the next scene twice as long] just to make sure the audience had time to relax from being so terrified.

THE BOOGEYMAN, director Rob Savage, on set, 2023. Ph: Patti Perrett /© 20th Century Studios / Courtesy of Everett Collection

The boogeyman director Rob Savage on set. (Photo: Patti Perrett /© 20th Century Studios /Courtesy Everett Collection)

“People reacted so violently that they had to find a balance,” says cast member David Dastmalchian.

Even the trailer was too much. “They had to get the trailer out earlier Ant man [and the Wasp: Quantumania]. I heard some kids got too scared,” explains 10-year-old co-star Vivien Lyra Blair. (Astonishing, The boogeyman has maintained a PG-13 rating.)

Those early reactions, plus a plea from famed author Stephen King, whose beloved 1973 short story the film is based on, turned The boogeymanthe whole trajectory. After originally slated to be released exclusively for Hulu, Disney – owner of 20th Century Studios – changed gears and put the movie in theaters instead.

“He backed it all along,” Savage says of King, noting that they arranged a private screening at King’s local theater in Maine, where the director got live updates on how the author reacted to it. “He was instrumental in getting it on the big screen. He wrote an essay about it and said, ‘They’ll be idiots if they put it on streaming.’”

King’s short story – first published in the magazine Cavalier in 1973 and later included in his 1978 collection of shorts, Night shift – centered on a distraught man who tells a therapist about the murder of his three young children by a supernatural force. Filmed by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (The quiet place) and Mark Heyman (Black Swan), The boogeyman begins with a similar interaction (with Chris Messina as therapist Will Harper and Dastmalchian as the desperate patient, Lester Billings) before expanding the story to focus on Will’s daughters Sadie (Sophie Thatcher) and Sawyer (Blair), who are recovering from their mother’s death when their own home is terrorized by the ghost of the same name.

THE BOOGEYMAN, David Dastmalchian, 2023. Ph: Patti Perrett /© 20th Century Studios / Courtesy of Everett Collection

David Dasmalchian The boogeyman. (Photo: Patti Perrett /© 20th Century Studios /Courtesy Everett Collection)

“You can’t have great jump scares without caring about the characters,” Messina (The Mindy Project, Air) remembers Savage telling him in his pitch to the actor. “King writes such wonderful characters that are so deep and grand… We talked a lot about ordinary people and sadness and all those combinations together made me want to do it.”

Savage kept his actors on their toes during filming. He randomly yelled and made loud, sudden noises to scare the cast.

“He clapped, and he had this book that he would smack on a chair,” says Blair (Birdhouse, Obi-Wan Kenobi). “He keeps us sharp. But he did it so many times that I finally came up to him and took the book from him and said, ‘Rob, no more book.’”

“He’s such a passionate director,” says Messina. “He directed this the way he directed Apocalypse now.”

It worked. The boogeyman has proven to be one of the most popular horror films of the year, thanks in part to stories from its test screenings — not to mention the backlash from media professionals, at least a few who admitted to fearing an early screening of the film at CinemaCon April in Las Vegas.

“That’s the goal, then we’ve done our job,” says Thatcher (Yellowjackets, The Book of Boba Fett).

“Just as a testament to how scary the movie is, we recently did a test screening,” Dastmalchian (Ant-Man, Dune) begins. “A friend of mine, he’s about six feet tall” and very burly and intimidating. At one point he screamed and sounded about 7.”

“I didn’t see everything,” admits Blair. “I’m terrified to see everything. So I watch the opening scene and the ending scene. And then I just sit outside the rest of the time.”

The boogeyman is now in theaters – where it belongs.

Watch the trailer:

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