Tuesday, October 7, 2014

HubrisWeen, Day 2: The Boogens (1981)

Peaking early is always a concern when it comes to story-telling, and especially when it comes to movies. After all, movies are usually meant to be watched in a single sitting, so if a movie gives its audience the best they can expect and then spends the rest of its running time failing to give them anything comparable, well, it will have engendered a lot of ill will by the time the credits roll.

A good example would be how Superman Returns gave its audience the amazing sequence of Superman saving a crashing plane, and then basically spent the rest of the film with him doing jack all.

Peaking early doesn't always have to be a bad thing, though. Pacific Rim's best sequence is undoubtedly the Hong Kong fight, yet I don't know anyone who wasn't still invested come the climactic battle at The Breach. If what follows the film's highlight is at least actually enjoyable, it's easier to forgive.

Yet neither of those examples peaked in the opening credits, which is exactly what The Boogens does. The question you must then ask is, "How can a movie peak in its credits?" Then follow it up with, "Is the rest of it a waste of time, then?"

To answer the second question will take the rest of this review. The first I will answer immediately.

The credits play over a montage of Old-Timey photographs and music, like a Ken Burns documentary, as a progressive series of headlines tell the story of Silver City, Colorado in 1888. A silver mine is opened, which produces a huge deposit of the precious metal and Silver City's population booms.

Then , in 1912, things take a turn for the worse. Multiple cave-ins are reported and then 27 miners are trapped in a cave-in. Worse, the next headline about these miners declares, "Miners Report Attacks In Mine." This is followed by "Mine Closed."

This is an amazing sequence, as it is marvelously creepy on its own terms and delivers a lot of exposition that could otherwise have killed the pace later on. So now we know that whatever was in that mine is bad news and we know that, given that horror movies hate shit-stirrers, somebody is going to make the mistake of opening it.

Sure enough, in present-day (or 1981) Silver City, business partners Brian (John Crawford) and Dan (Med Flory) break off the padlock on the mine entrance. Late to arrive to their new job site are Brian annd Dan's new employees, Roger (Jeff Harlan) and Mark (Fred McCarren), toting a generator. All Roger wants to talk about is how much sex he's going to have when his girlfriend, Jessica, arrives--while Mark wants to focus on the job, though he is at least amused at Roger's antics.

Dan, Roger, and Mark head into the mine to check what beams need to be replaced. Then Roger and Mark string lights and start the generator, as Roger tries to convince Mark that he's gonna like Jessica's friend, Trish--Mark is skeptical given Roger's history of set-ups. Finally, Dan and Brian use dynamite to open up the cave-in sealing the mine. Unbeknownst to the group, a haggard old man (Jon Lormer, better known as the soon-to-be vengeful zombie in the "Father's Day" sequence of Creepshow) is watching them from afar, most disapprovingly.

After the work day ends, Roger and Mark head to their hotel to get ready for moving into their rental house the next morning. That night, their landlord, Martha (Marcia Reider) heads over to warm up the house--but narrowly avoids a deer on the way and runs her car into a ditch. She gets to the house, starts up the power and phones her husband---all while the strange old man watches through the window. But even he flees when he sees her head into the basement to light the water heater. Despite some weird noises, she makes it out of the basement alive and gets into bed.

However, Martha hears the sound of the low-angle roving POV cam in the basement and goes to investigate in the kitchen. She grabs a knife, but unfortunately does not see the basement door open as she walks by it, so is thus completely caught off-guard by the creature that burst forth with a roar and drags her to her doom.

The next morning, Deputy Blanchard (Scott Wilkinson) pulls the unfortunate victim's car from a ditch. So there will be no warning for Jessica (Anne-Marie Martin) and Trish (Rebecca Balding) as they drive past on their way to the house. This also introduces Jessica's fluffy little dog, Tiger, who will prove to be a surprisingly sympathetic character given the usual prejudices against yap dogs--and one of the best dog actors in any horror film this side of John Carpenter's The Thing.
"So, I'm the hero, right? ...Right?!"
Back in the mine, the group clears the cave-in blocking a passage unmarked on Dan and Brian's map and discover a cavern with an underground pool. Roger is extremely wigged out from the get-go. The mysterious splashes in the water and the discovery of the bleached bones of close to 30 people do nothing to calm him, but Mark and Dan are unconcerned.

Jessica and Trish begin the process of moving in---which includes Jessica testing the bed for stability and Trish discovering that the cold shower she wanted to take is colder than she actually wanted. So Trish ventures into the basement, clad only in a robe. The POV cam watches her but does not strike--because it's only Tiger waiting to false scare her.

Poor Roger is tasked by Brian with going to Denver to pick up some updated maps, but told he doesn't have to go in until 3AM so as to at least give him the, uh, reunion with Jessica he won't stop talking about. He'll also be taking Brian's truck later that evening. (I'm sure this won't be relevant later)

Jessica and Roger's playful screaming causes Trish to exit her shower in a hurry, thinking that Jessica was in distress, so that she meets Mark by...literally showing her ass. Despite this, Trish and Mark hit it off while sitting and talking in the kitchen, where Mark demonstrates that Tiger actually listens to him. Seems years ago Mark made a dog electric chair as a means of showing Tiger he meant business.

During this, Tiger also demonstrates a simultaneous fear and curiosity about the basement. Then Deputy Blanchard comes by, looking for the late Martha--and thus being the interruptus to Roger's coitus. Since everyone's dressed, the reluctant Jessica and Trish are convinced to go out to dinner and leave Tiger alone in the house. Alone with the thing in the basement, which doesn't stay in the basement.

Roger collects the keys from Brian and heads home to get some sleep for the road as Jessica schools Dan at pool, and Mark flirts with Trish. Roger pulls Brian's truck into the house's garage, but the mess left by the creature chasing Tiger--which he erroneously assumes is Tiger's doing--delays his nap. The broken bed cancels it completely, so he heads out to garage...

...and promptly runs afoul of something with tentacles hiding under the truck. Those tentacles also have claws, as it turns out, and they know just how to slash open arteries. Exit Roger.

Mark and Trish are none the wiser when they get home, Jessica having stayed behind to school Brian and Dan at pool some more. The new couple make love in front of a roaring fire--only to be interrupted by Tiger. The next morning, however, Jessica can't find Tiger. Investigating the basement, Mark finds a vent in the basement that leads into the mine. Tiger turns up okay, but is visibly terrified.

Mark heads off to work and Trish heads into town for errands. At the mine, as Mark heads down with a light, the mysterious old man steals several sticks of dynamite from the back of Mark's truck and follows him in. Trish, meanwhile, is researching the old cave-ins at the local newspaper office.

Around the same time, Mark makes the observation that the bones in the mine shouldn't be in scattered piles if the men died of suffocation or starvation, Brian realizes Roger should have been back from Denver, and Jessica discovers that the truck is still in the garage. (How she fails to notice the blood and other signs of the struggles between Roger and the creature is beyond me) Trish goes to the mine to tell Mark about Roger's disappearance, and about the story she uncovered--a survivor of the cave-in who went crazy and claimed he was attacked by something in the mine.

Naturally, he wasn't crazy. And it's poor Tiger and Jessica who get to find that out. While Jessica takes a shower, the creature in the basement sends a couple tentacles up a vent in the bedroom--and Tiger gets too close to the vent when investigating. Exit Tiger.

Jessica hears Tiger's final yelp and goes to investigate, nearly losing an arm as a tentacle reaches out of the vent and grabs her. She breaks free and moves a dresser on top of the vent, but the creature is too string and tosses it out of the way and somehow emerges from the vent and gives chase. (When we see the creature later, it will definitely be hard to believe it fit through the vent--or at least as easily as it does here) Unfortunately, Jessica ends up cornered in a closet and, like her boyfriend before her, takes a claw to the throat.

Goodbye, Jessica. I liked you.
Speaking of Roger, he turns up back at the mine--or at least most of him. He's floating in the pool with half his face chewed off. The old man now makes himself known, holding the dynamite by a lighter. He explains to Dan, Brian, and Mark that his father was the survivor who "went crazy." So he grew up hearing tales about the "Boogens" and making sure that the tunnels to the houses were sealed--tunnels like the one in the basement. All of which have now been unsealed, thanks to our heroes. Mark realizes the threat and rushes to the house, calling the deputy on his way.

Unfortunately, he's too late because Trish has just arrived home and discovered the aftermath of Jessica's death. And she quickly runs afoul of the culprit:

"Rar! I am not remotely cute and cuddly! STOP MAKING KISSY FACES AT ME!"
As it turns out, Boogens are ferocious, voracious, and damn near impossible to kill. So if that mine isn't sealed up, Silver City is going to be a lovely shade of red instead.

The biggest hurdle most monster movies struggle with jumping over is the simple limitations of special effects on a small budget. You may want Stan Winston but you can barely afford Paul Blaisdell. There is one obvious way to overcome this, which is to hold off on showing your monster for as long as possible. And, indeed, The Boogens excels at this. We don't see anything of the creatures beyond tentacles until 87 minutes into a 95 minute movie.

Now, obviously, this means that any creature we actually see is going to end up disappointing compared to whatever we imagine while watching it. The upside is that, if the monster is disappointing, we don't spend the whole movie being expected to be frightened by it.

Of course, I happen to love the Boogens--which means I differ quite drastically from the opinion of the film's director. They look a bit like the hatchling version of Irys from Gamera 3 if you peeled its shell off, shortened its neck, and gave it a mouth full of teeth. Or, put another way, a frog that just went through the microwave given tentacles and fangs. The main downside is the damn things are way more adorable than frightening.

"Love me or die!"
The atmospheric touches are definitely the film's strength. As I already said, the opening titles are amazing--almost a separate horror film from the actual feature.

The funny thing about this film is that it sort of follows the pattern of a slasher film. The unseen assailant kills its victims one by one, until the final reveal when all the bodies begin showing up (and for creatures that eat people, their victims tend to be mostly intact) and then the killer won't stay dead. While, in this case, there are supposed to be multiple creatures--although only one puppet, of course--the first reveal still follows a pattern of the killer who won't stay dead.

Where it differs, of course, is that its characters are all adults (as opposed to adults playing teenagers) and while the sex-obsessed couple sure does get it, the more "innocent" couple we know to be our heroes are actually the ones who get the steamy sex scene. Hell, all of the film's nudity comes from Trish, not Jessica--so it's refreshingly a horror film that can't be read as punishing its characters for having sex. While those certainly exist, the usual exploitation model tends to forbid it because of the simple expedience of having your nudity and gore all in one easy package.

That's another way the film differs. While the film racks up a respectable body count, there's no one aside from Martha who exists solely to be introduced and then whacked in order to add to the kill count. The characters are treated like actual characters, not just fodder.

However, it still feels a bit hollow compared to that amazing opening. There's simply no way around that. Yet, I happen to really enjoy the film that follows--and I wouldn't trade that opening for anything.

Also, who doesn't want a pet Boogen?

Here we are at day 2 of 2014's HubrisWeen, where I and several of my b-movie comrades dive into 26 horror/sci-fi movies a day--one for each letter of the alphabet--culminating with the last film on Halloween. We're all just slavishly copying the pioneer of this madness, Checkpoint Telstar.

Click the link above to check out what the other maniacs chose, won't you?

1 comment:

  1. Without a doubt one of if not the most underrated 80's monster movie ever made considering that it was about tentacled turtles terrorizing a mining town. Add to the fact that it was directed by James L Conway makes this movie even more iconic and unforgettable.