Effectively atmospheric and unusually involving thriller tells the story of a distraught young man's protracted duel of wits with the eponymous evildoer. Despite Screen Gems' evident low expectations, could scare up respectable coin from genre fans before making a real killing while haunting vidstores.

Trendy influence of insidiously creepy Japanese horror pics is felt in almost every frame of “Boogeyman.” The effectively atmospheric and unusually involving thriller tells the story of a distraught young man’s protracted duel of wits with the eponymous evildoer. Despite Screen Gems’ evident low expectations — distrib opened creature-feature without press previews on Super Bowl weekend — latest opus produced by Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures could scare up respectable coin from genre fans before making a real killing while haunting vidstores.

Right from the get-go, helmer Stephen Kay (“The Last Time I Committed Suicide”) establishes a smartly apportioned balance of suspense and shock. The prologue depicts the childhood trauma of a youngster (Aaron Murphy) who witnesses — or at least thinks he witnesses — the violent quietus of his father at the hands of the closet-dwelling Boogeyman.

Fifteen years later, now-twentysomething Tim (Barry Watson) remains troubled by thoughts of a horrific event that everyone else says could not possibly have occurred. He’s told to accept a more rational explanation for his father’s disappearance: Dad simply abandoned the family, leaving Tim to be raised by an uncle after his mom’s breakdown.

After awakening from a vivid nightmare involving his estranged mom (played, fleetingly, by Lucy Lawless of “Xena: Warrior Princess” fame), Tim gets a call from Uncle Mike (Phillip Gordon) bearing the sad tidings that his mother has died. So Tim returns to the small town of his youth to pay his last respects.

While in his hometown, Tim is told by his former child psychologist (Robyn Malcolm) that the only way he will be able to make peace with his past is by spending the night at his former home where he saw the Boogeyman. This may be very bad therapeutic advice, but it provides more than adequate plot impetus.

Best parts of “Boogeyman” are extended, dialogue-free stretches where Tim anxiously treads through long-abandoned, under-renovation house filled with dusty keepsakes and unpleasant memories. Occasionally, he flinches at the sound of sudden, inexplicable noises. Periodically, he’s frozen with slack-jawed fear as scenes from his unhappy childhood appear as fearsomely vivid visions.

Here and there, Kay subtly implies that Tim’s monstrous memories are really collateral psychic damage caused by child abuse, hints that ratchet up the intensity of aud’s rooting interest in protagonist.

Watson — who often looks like Vincent D’Onofrio’s younger, sweatier and twitchier brother — is credible and compelling while charting character arc from distress to desperation to determination. Singularly well-cast supporting players include Tory Mussett as Tim’s sympathetic but not infinitely-patient girlfriend, Emily Deschanel as a childhood friend, and, most impressive, Skye McCole Bartusiak as a forlorn little girl who can fully appreciate Tim’s worst fears.

Continuity is something short of seamless in pic’s final third, as Kay and scripters Eric Kripke, Juliet Snowden and Stiles White fudge transitions and explanations while springing nasty surprises and ever-increasing scares. Even so, “Boogeyman” never tumbles into total incoherence, and even manages to provide a dramatically satisfying pay-off for climactic sound and fury.

Overall ominous mood is enhanced by stalker-stealthy camera movement of lenser Bobby Bukowski, color-desaturated production design of Robert Gillies and evocative musical score of Joseph Loduca. Andrew Glover gets credit for portraying title creature, but performance is supplemented with camera trickery (courtesy of New Zealand-based f/x house Oktober) that more or less turns thesp into a special effect.

For the record: This “Boogeyman” (filmed mostly in and around Auckland, N.Z.) has nothing to do with similarly titled “The Boogeyman,” the 1980 pic that spawned the 1983 sequel “Boogeyman II.” Come to think of it, it doesn’t have anything to do with K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s disco-era hit, either.

Boogeyman

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Screen Gems presentation in association with Senator Intl. of a Ghost House Pictures production. Produced by Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert. Executive producers, Joe Drake, Nathan Kahane, Carsten Lorenz, Steve Hein, Gary Bryman. Co-producers, Eric Kripke, Doug Leffler. Directed by Stephen Kay. Screenplay, Eric Kripke, Juliet Snowden, Stiles White, from story by Kripke.

Crew

Camera (color), Bobby Bukowski; editor, John Axelrad; music, Joseph Loduca; production designer, Robert Gillies; art directors, Jennifer Ward, Nick Bassett, Phil Ivey; set decorators, Jill Cormack, Jackie Gilmore; costume designer, Jane Holland; sound (Dolby), Tony Johnson; associate producer, Michael Kirk; assistant director, Simon Ambridge; casting, Lynn Kressel. Reviewed at Cinemark Tinseltown Westchase, Houston, Feb. 4, 2005. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 86 MIN.

With

Tim - Barry Watson Kate - Emily Deschanel Franny - Skye McCole Bartusiak Jessica - Tory Mussett Boogeyman - Andrew Glover Tim's Mother - Lucy Lawless Tim's Father - Charles Mesure Uncle Mike - Phillip Gordon Young Tim - Aaron Murphy Pam - Jennifer Rucker Dr. Matheson - Robyn Malcolm
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