What would you do if a mysterious game with a hymn for instructions and threats for refusing to play arrived on your doorstep on Halloween unannounced? Would you play the game or would you burn it and move on?
For the family at the center of Luke Jaden‘s BOO!, there is no choice but the latter. Religious patriarch James (Rob Zabrecky) lords over the family like a tyrant and there’s no room for pagan tolerance in his deeply-held religious beliefs. There’s also no room for conversation – a fact that irks rebellious teenage daughter Morgan (Aurora Perrineau), but barely fazes withdrawn, alcoholic mother Elyse (Jill Marie Jones). Only Caleb (Jaden Piner), the supernaturally-inclined, monster obsessed youngest child, appreciates how much danger the family is when the BOO! game is tossed aside.
The title and cold open — involving a veteran on a murder/suicide run — position BOO! as a horror film, but in reality the film is much more of a family drama right up until its effects-laden climax. Scripted by Jaden and co-writer Diane Michelle, BOO! uses its supernatural premise as an inciting incident to explore how the family has become so deeply broken and if they will come together when threatened or simply perish.
Once James burns the game, each member of the family begins experiencing hallucinatory visions of their darkest secrets. Repression and silence are key themes of the film, so it is only natural that each of the four family members are kept apart for the first half of the film. James retreats to his Christian bookstore, while Elyse hits the local watering hole after demanding that Morgan stay at home to watch her younger brother. The teenager leaves Caleb alone, drawing terrifying pictures that forecast doom, and secretly meets up with her older boyfriend Ashton (Charley Palmer Rothwell) to plan her escape. For impatient horror fans, BOO!‘s dedication to character development in its first half may be a deal breaker, but Jaden and Michelle wisely take their time to flesh the family members out individually before they are put through a spectral ringer.
The result is a significantly deeper investment in the family that elevates the horror when they are reunited and trapped in the house. By parsing out the hauntings in the first half of the film, they become more significant and character-driven. This is evident in the fact that each character has their own unique experience: a young boy with plucked out eyes haunts James; Elyse sees empty baby carriages and hears the cries of a phantom newborn; Morgan is tortured with visions of her own suicide attempt; and Caleb is pursued by the boogeyman.
Unfortunately not everything in BOO! works as well as the deliberate pacing and character-focused narrative. The special effects are a mix of practical and CGI and, as is often the case, the latter are frequently unconvincing. At one point Morgan envisions slicing open her wrist with a broken shard of mirror and the blood looks incredibly fake. The same critique applies to the hollowed out eyes of James’ tormentor. In contrast, when practical effects are combined with selective lighting and framing, as is the case for Elyse and a certain body part late in the film, the result is highly effective.
Jaden’s direction is solid, though the film’s climax — when family members who are caught in their own individual visions pass by each other unknowingly — is confusing due to poor editing. Overall, BOO! is appropriately spooky and the mildly dilapidated house contributes significantly to the atmosphere.
Surveying the performances, both female leads stand out. As Morgan, Perrineau has the most expressive role and the scene when Morgan discusses her plans to leave the small town really helps to ground the character. The teen girl’s desire to be free of her father’s oppressive regime and her mother’s judgmental silence feels achingly real.
Marie Jones is similarly excellent. Elyse has BOO!‘s most significant emotional arc and Marie Jones nails the character’s transition from passive, drugged up enabler to matriarchal force to be reckoned with. Both parents harbour dark, personal secrets that inform their approach to parenting, but Elyse’s feels more nuanced and emotional thanks to Marie Jones’ vulnerable, multifaceted performance.
Overall BOO! is most successful as a drama that uses horror to explore how repression, oppression and isolation destroy the family unit. Featuring two stand-out female performances and an haunting atmosphere, Luke Jaden’s feature directorial debut is spooky, atmospheric and emotional. The film isn’t revolutionary, but it is well worth a watch, particularly for fans of slow burn, character-driven horror films.
The Brooklyn Horror Film Festival runs from October 11-18, 2018. Tickets and information about the festival can be found here.