An ambitious, unsettling, character-based horror movie from debuting writer-director Luke Jaden – who has previously made short films – this explores familiar territory, but in a fresh, surprising manner. It’s almost as impressive for what it omits as what it includes, with explanations hinted at but never spelled out. A prologue set in 1980 establishes a Detroit boo! tradition (somewhere between a chain letter and a trick or treat, and apparently linked to the Devil’s Night phenomenon that featured in The Crow) that leads to tragedy. Then, we hop to the present – as in Only Lovers Left Alive and It Follows, the setting of the former motor-town’s depopulated neighbourhoods is exploited for unease – and a biracial family who aren’t getting on … white father James (Rob Zabrecky) is a stern Christian who insists they don’t celebrate Halloween, black mother Elyse (Jill Marie Jones) is quietly turning to pills and booze, teenage Morgan (Aurora Perrineau) is sullenly looking to get out of town, and twelve-year-old Caleb (Jaden Pinner, from Moonlight) is in the grip of formless fears and terrified when James burns a boo! letter left on the porch. Even Caleb’s goldfish seems unbalanced and not long for the world.
The kid believes James has brought down a curse on the family, though – in a rare moment of non-ranting sense – his father tries to explain what an urban legend is, before defaulting to rote business about ‘the only ghost is the Holy Ghost’. While James is working in an empty library on Halloween night, Elyse wants to go to a bar and Morgan wants to hook up with her boyfriend Ash (Charley Palmer Rothwell), leaving Caleb home alone with terrors that loom in the form of sheeted ghosts. Taking a cue from the empty streets – where only a few trick or treaters venture – the family are all isolated onscreen. We see Elyse outside a bar and James shelving books, but fellow drinkers or co-workers don’t intrude on the frame. Under the influence of the curse, but also of other buried horrors, the family begin to have hallucinations, which tease out a couple of backstory traumas that suggest how they got set on the paths to misery – with James beset by a creepy bowtied child with empty eye sockets and Elyse bothered by the black baby carriage from the poster of Rosemary’s Baby … while Morgan has fantasies of self-harm, and Caleb draws scarier and scarier pictures.
For a low-budget first feature, Boo! is extraordinarily well-cast, though it’s notable that even in the run-down settings and with drab lighting all of the family are extremely good-looking. The horrors build slowly, sliding into scenes of the characters grating on each other or huddled alone, and even the parents, who at first seem to be standard types (joyless fundamentalist, covert lush), show nuances as we get glimpses of who they are (or were) before they settled into their ruts. At the breakfast table, Elyse is annoyed with her daughter for getting a tattoo (a deathshead moth) on her shoulder (‘you know that’s permanent?’) – only later do we notice that she has similar ink on her wrist. The haunting itself is nebulous, with a big bad eventually manifesting but not stating its case, but the resolution is grimly effective. Not to be confused with Boo (2005), Tyler Perry’s brace of Halloween-themed Madea Boo films, or several shorts with the same title.