It was an ominous sign for the vitality of American horror cinema when 2003’s Darkness Falls, without any hint of satire, offered up the Tooth Fairy as a malevolent villain. While its supernatural monster is slightly less preposterous than a woman who leaves quarters under sleeping children’s pillows, Boogeyman—a garbled mélange of loud noises, poorly-lit sets, and sub-standard special effects—nonetheless confirms the continuing dearth of competent American genre films by casting the Boogeyman as a figure of unrelenting terror. A creature-feature that squanders its fleetingly intriguing subtext about relinquishing childhood illusions for adulthood, Stephen T. Kay’s film is inept in innumerable ways but none more so than with regard to its titular phantom, a shoddy CGI spectre that seems to hunt kids just so the director can populate his derivative scary story with creepy, pasty-faced tykes.
As a boy, Tim (7th Heaven’s Barry Watson) witnessed the Boogeyman—who lurks in closets and underneath beds—abduct his father. After 15 years of being told by psychiatrists that he imagined the entire event (and that his father simply abandoned the family), Tim still has a paralyzing phobia of closets. After the death of his mother (Lucy Lawless, a long way from her Xena heyday), Tim is advised by his former shrink to spend a night in his old childhood home as a means of therapeutically confronting his long-festering fears. That this may be the worst advice ever offered by a trained professional doesn’t deter Tim, who—after an underdeveloped narrative aside in which he spends an uncomfortable dinner with his rich girlfriend’s snobbish family—holes himself up for an evening in the haunted house. Before long, portentous gusts of wind and unholy howls begin echoing throughout the rickety old mansion, and the perpetually frazzled Tim, with the help of an old friend (Emily Deschanel) and a mysterious young girl (Skye McCole Bartusiak), begins to uncover the truth about his unhealthy Boogeyman fixation.
Tim must ultimately vanquish his supernatural pursuer by destroying the emblems of his youth (a sweatshirt, an action figure), yet Kay—working from Eric Kripke, Juliet Snowden, and Stiles White’s plodding script—is more concerned with duplicating Evil Dead’s breakneck POV shots (Sam Raimi, coincidentally, serves as producer) than with examining his protagonist’s uneasy maturation. When not gratuitously cockeyed, the director’s camera frantically whips around in circles as if deathly afraid of stasis, and virtually all of the film’s scares are sabotaged by Kay’s obsession with hyper-edited montages of gruesome images. Even more frustrating, however, is the film’s refusal to provide the Boogeyman with even a hint of motivation for his kid-snatching crimes. During his final showdown with Tim, the unimaginative fiend—who has previously been kept off-screen as a means of heightening tension—is revealed as a second-rate ghoul with a big mouth and a glass jaw, and the letdown is so painfully predictable that, instead of heightening one’s fear of closets, it simply creates an overwhelming urge to head straight for the nearest theater door.