While Hollywood was on pause during the worst of the pandemic, Rob Savage’s quick thinking and creativity inspired him to make two movies on the fly.
The British writer-director shot his independent film “Host” at the beginning of COVID-19 restrictions, with cast and crew using Zoom and self-taping to tell the spine-chilling tale of a socially distanced seance. The $100K film hit horror streamer Shudder to wide acclaim in July 2020 — fans were impressed by the creative scares and resourceful special effects produced with limited resources. Savage’s follow-up, 2021’s “Dashcam,” was largely filmed on the titular device and follows a COVID-skeptic, MAGA-loving YouTuber who drives around London trying to escape from evil. Although still microbudget fare, it got the attention of Blumhouse’s Jason Blum, was a producer on the project.
Savage’s unconventional path led him to the Stephen King adaptation “The Boogeyman,” which he’s helming for 20th Century Studios, with a budget in the $30 million-$35 million range. What about “The Boogeyman” lured Savage from the indie world to a project that funneled up to Disney?
“I’ve always wanted to do a movie like this, a kind of big studio horror movie that you can watch on a Friday night,” he says. “After doing two movies that are very pandemic-focused — they’re very much taking the temperature of 2020 and 2021 — we shot this in 2022. I wanted it to feel like this movie could be plucked right out of the ’70s, or you could watch this 10 years down the line and it still speaks to fundamental fears.”
Whereas “Host” and “Dashcam” were specific to their highly unusual time, the premise for “The Boogeyman” is a much more conventionally-plotted horror story: A sad dad (Chris Messina) and his daughters (Sophie Thatcher and Vivien Lyra Blair) are grappling with their grief over the recently passed matriarch of the household, which might be manifesting via a boogeyman lurking in the shadows. Yet Savage elevates the material with handsome camerawork, visceral special effects and unconventional scare moments that keep the audience off guard.
On his low-budget hits Savage could work on the fly, but bringing his horror vision to “The Boogeyman” allowed him the ability to plan things out.
“When we made ‘Host’ and ‘Dashcam,’ we would start by writing a big list of all the things we could get for free,” he says. “I can go to this cool location, or I know a friend who can do a stunt. So we were working backwards from what we could achieve with no money, whereas on this everything was very designed. We just tried to tell the scariest, most iconic version of this story. I storyboarded this whole movie out in advance, and then Jeremy Woodward, our amazing production designer, built these houses to my storyboards, so the scares are baked into the very design of the place. All of that was totally new to me. It was amazing to hone every detail.”
Having a budget that dwarfed anything he’d previously handled didn’t change Savage’s hands-on approach on set. Thatcher, best known as “Yellowjackets” breakout Natalie, says shooting “The Boogeyman” felt like an indie because Savage’s approach was so imaginative and open to collaboration.
“You felt that freshness and his drive and knew he just wanted to make something special,” she says. “He was so down to hear our takes and walked through the script with us to hear our thoughts. That’s really refreshing to have in any situation.”
Messina, who was also a scene-stealing highlight of this year’s “Air,” says Savage’s intensity and dedication to the genre created a driven set.
“He really directed this movie like he was directing ‘Apocalypse Now,’” he says. “I mean, he cared so much. As you know, if your captain cares, it trickles down to every crew member, and certainly the actors. So I learned very early on that he knew way more about the genre and that his direction was always really spot on.”
Savage is set to continue with studio-backed horror, as he is already developing a film adaptation of graphic novel “Night of the Ghoul” with 20th Century Studios.
“It’s another monster movie,” he says. “We’ve shortened the title to ‘The Ghoul,’ so we’re doing ‘The Boogeyman’ and then ‘The Ghoul.’ It’s our attempt at doing a curse movie, something that audiences feel like I felt when I first watched ‘Ringu,’ which is probably the movie that terrified me the most. It’s about building that sense of dread. ‘Smile’ hit on this same response recently, but it’s a slightly different mode of horror.”