The Boogens (1981) ***
Believe it or not, I’ve been waiting to see this movie for nearly twenty years. The Boogens aired on cable TV one summer (it was probably the summer of ‘82, although it could possibly have been ‘83 as well— movies took longer to work their way around to cable in those days), and I must have seen the trailer on The Movie Channel dozens of times. In fact, I remember that trailer so vividly that I even recognized snatches of dialogue when I finally saw the movie the other night. But what made the biggest impression on me was a two-second glimpse of one of the film’s monsters. I once read an interview with Clive Barker in which he talked about sitting through all of Howard the Duck— in the theater, no less— just so that he could see the Dark Overlord of the Universe in his true form. I’m with Clive. As my long-time readers (both of them) have probably figured out, I’ll gladly endure movies that suck a caribou’s ass— even by my dazzlingly low standards— if it means I’ll get to see a cool monster, and the Boogens certainly meet that description. But I never did catch the movie that summer, and it never returned. Not only that, the fucking thing wasn’t even released on home video until about 1998! Why? Search me. Maybe there was some kind of ownership dispute. That’s what’s kept George Romero’s Season of the Witch out of circulation since the mid-80’s, and since God knows I’ve never heard of Taft International Pictures (the company originally responsible for The Boogens) in any other context, it wouldn’t surprise me if the same thing happened here. What’s even stranger than the long lag time between The Boogens’ original release and its eventual appearance on home video is the fact that scarcely any of the rental outfits in my area bothered to pick it up once the videotape finally came out— it was basically buy it or miss it. And once again, I missed it. But fortunately for me, it turns out that one of my local video stores has exactly one copy.
The Boogens begins with one of the most inventive strategies for establishing a movie’s backstory that I’ve ever seen. The opening credits roll superimposed over a montage of old-timey photos and newspaper headlines that sketch the history of Silver City, Colorado’s most productive mine. “Silver Strike in High Country”... “Motherlode Struck in Rockies”... “Hundreds Pour into Mountains”... “Richest Vein in History.” But then, “Two More Cave-Ins”... “Safety Inspector Due”... “Twenty-Seven Trapped in Mine”... “Miners Feared Dead.” And finally, “Miners Report Attacks”... “Mine Closed.” In about five minutes, we’ve got the whole background, without having to sit through a single word of expository dialogue. If the rest of the movie had been this efficient and imaginative, The Boogens would really be something to see. In truth, however, the film is mostly rather pedestrian, rising again to this level on only a couple of occasions.
Now considering that we’ve just established the long-ago closure of a mine in which large numbers of people died under somewhat suspicious circumstances, there can be only one possible way to get this story rolling. Some nitwit is going to have to reopen that mine. And lo and behold, Brian Deering (John Crawford, from I Saw What You Did and Zombies of the Stratosphere) and Dan Ostroff (The Amazing Captain Nemo’s Med Flory) have come to Silver City to do just that. With them are a couple of much younger men, Roger Lowrie (Jeff Harlan) and Mark Kinner (Fred McCarren of Class Reunion), who are also recent transplants to the town, having moved there from Pennsylvania almost immediately after Mark’s graduation from college. The four men break open the entrance to the main shaft, and then proceed down to install modern electrical lighting and to inspect the beams supporting the shafts for safety. While they’re underground, they find a tunnel that isn’t on their old and out-of-date map, a tunnel which is blocked off by rubble from a long-ago cave-in. Curious to see where it leads, the miners get to work chopping through the blockage, and find a huge natural cavern on the other side. Most of the cavern’s floor is taken up by an underground pond (in which something always seems to be moving just under the surface at the limits of the characters’ fields of vision), while the rest is piled shin-deep with disarticulated human bones. If you’re thinking this might be the chamber where those “Twenty-Seven Miners” were trapped by the cave-in all those years ago, you’re probably on to something. But there’s something suspicious about the whole scene. None of the men will think of this until the movie is half over, but generally speaking, the victims of cave-ins remain more or less in one piece. None of the bones in this cavern, however, form anything like a coherent skeleton. You think about that for a bit, while I go on with the story.
Roger and Mark are soon to be joined in Silver City by Roger’s girlfriend, Jessica Ford (Anne-Marie Martin, from Prom Night and Runaway), and another girl named Trish Michaels (Silent Scream’s Rebecca Balding), with whom Roger and Jessica hope to set Mark up. The night after Roger, Mark, and their bosses open the mine, the girls’ landlady stops by to open up the house at which they’ll be staying. This poor woman has a really shitty night in store for her. First, a deer runs out into the road in front of her, causing her to spin out on the snow-slickened road, and dump her car into a ditch. Then after walking all the way to the house, through the dark, the cold, and the snow, she gets attacked by something, and pulled into the basement, where she is doubtless killed and disassembled like the skeletons back in the mine. The cops find her abandoned car the next day.
So far, we seem to be moving in a monster-movie-as-slasher-flick direction, and the events of the next couple of scenes will confirm this. An opportunity to watch Roger, Jessica, Mark, and Trish in action sorts them comfortably enough into the horny couple-chaste couple dichotomy to which we are accustomed from the axe-murderer genre, though it is worth pointing out that Mark and Trish are chaste only in comparison to Roger and Jessica, who spend the entire movie fucking like bunnies. But relative chastity is apparently good enough, because Roger and Jessica both die long before Mark and Trish are even threatened with attack. We’ve also got the loopy old man sneaking around spying on everyone (as in the first Friday the 13th movie), but again, there is a noticeable variation on the slasher formula here. The loopy old man is generally intended as a red herring suspect, but Old Man Greenwalt (Jon Lormer, from Creepshow and the 1973 TV version of Frankenstein) doesn’t fit that particular bill very well, because by the time we meet him, we already know that whatever it is that’s doing the killing has barbed tentacles, and Greenwalt clearly has no tentacles of any kind.
No, Greenwalt’s job is last-minute exposition. His father was the only man to escape from the cave-in all those years ago, and was the miner who reported the attacks mentioned in that newspaper headline from the opening credits. Traumatized by the stories his father told him as a child, Greenwalt has devoted his adult life to keeping watch over the mine, and over the houses whose basements are connected to the mine by ventilation shafts (our heroes’ rental place, for instance), fearing that one day the monsters his father saw would find a way out of their cavern and up to the surface. Deering and Ostroff, by reopening the mine and breaking through the old cave-in, have of course provided the creatures with just such an opportunity, and it is for that reason that Greenwalt has been doing so much extra lurking lately. Eventually, the old man gets it into his head that the only thing left to do is to dynamite the mine, sealing “the Boogens,” as he calls them, back inside. But by the time he thinks of this, the monsters’ killing spree is already in full effect.
It’s always a tricky business watching a movie to which you have attached two decades’ worth of anticipation and expectations. I’m sure we’ve all got stories to tell of that thing we always wanted to do or see when we were kids that turned out to completely eat shit when we finally got the chance. But to its great credit, The Boogens managed to satisfy a good proportion of my surely inflated expectations. There are enough glimmers of craft and quality to make up for the often uninspired treatment of the basic plot, and just enough unpredictability to keep me invested in the story. And the monsters themselves proved to be just as cool as I remembered them being, although they are naturally far less realistic than they seemed when I was eight years old, watching the trailer on TV for the twentieth time. The Boogens is by no means a brilliant piece of cinema, but it’s got a little class, a bit of imagination, a hearty portion of sex and violence, and creatures strange enough that it’s difficult to describe them— and that, my friends, is good enough for me.