Cynicism isn’t hard to come by in the horror genre; any Italian cannibal or home invasion flick will satiate your desire for an outlook on man’s worst transgressions. Conversely, it’s even harder to find a film with such a buoyant feel that is at odds with the terror on display. Well, folks, may I present to you The Boogens (1981), an endearing charmer of a subterranean monster movie. By the time it’s over, you may want to give it a big old hug.
Released by Jensen Farley Pictures in September (with Paramount buying up the TV rights) on a budget of $600,000 US, The Boogens did nothing to impress critics. However, a certain Stephen King loved the hell out of it, and his praise would grace the advertising as it did with his accolades of The Evil Dead (1981). (A King blurb held a lot of truck in those days.) Alas, lightning didn’t strike twice and The Boogens swiftly made its exit from theaters only to find a home on the burgeoning cable scene. And if the film is known at all, it’s from this outlet—bumping up against the umpteenth airing of The Last American Virgin or Porky’s, building a small but loyal gathering of Boogenites in the early hours of taboo viewing (your folks didn’t know you were watching HBO, did they?). Hell, it didn’t even get dumped onto home video until the mid-’90s; Republic Pictures, VCI, and World Beyond all took a crack at making a buck off of it and still failed. If ever there was a horror release that didn’t deserve its obscurity, it’s The Boogens.
Instead of offering up a prologue to set the story in motion, we are shown newspaper clippings of a small silver mining town that experiences a cave-in, killing several miners. Fast forward 70 years, as college buddies Mark (Fred McCarren – Xanadu) and Roger (Jeff Harlan – Auto Focus) arrive at the town to help veteran miners Brian (John Crawford – The Towering Inferno) and Dan (Med Flory – The Hearse) reopen the long deserted silver tomb. After some well-placed charges, the boys head back to their cabin where they await the out-of-town arrival of Roger’s girlfriend Jessica (Anne-Marie Martin – Prom Night) and her friend Trish (Rebecca Balding – The Silent Scream). A creepy old-timer (Jon Lormer – Nathan Grantham himself, from Creepshow) tries to keep them from reopening the mine. Mayhem ensues as our titular creatures arise (one at a time, mind you; keep an eye on that budget) and wreak havoc on the townspeople. And… that’s all she wrote.
Usually I use two paragraphs to describe the plot; laying out twists, turns, and revelations that occur in the second and third acts. But The Boogens comes at you with a Zen-like simplicity that’s compelling. No dirty town secrets or cover-ups; the critters killed the miners in 1912, and now they’re back, Jack. Of course, this leaves the filmmakers open to a metric ton of scrutiny and derision from the modern viewer—“that’s it?” they’ll say, scratching their collective chins. But if we take a step back, it’s no different than a log line for a Friday the 13th film—threat introduced, threat thwarted. What The Boogens thrives on is superior character development, especially for a monster mash like this.
We can thank production company Taft International Pictures for the anachronistic upbeat tone of the picture. Before the 1980 buyout by Taft, they were known as Sunn Classic Pictures Inc., noted for such family-friendly fare as The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams (1974), and the bizarre pseudo-docs In Search of Noah’s Ark (’76) and The Bermuda Triangle (’79). They still kept the Sunn name, though, for the subsequent Grizzly Adams TV series, as well as several specials catering to the more spiritually inclined. Bearing the Taft name, they decided to branch out into more adult fare (including Cujo a couple of years down the road), and their initial low-budget yields were ’70s sci-fi hangover Hangar 18 (1980) and our little ditty, both directed by James L. Conway, who brings the same family-friendly feel as he did when he helmed the Grizzly Adams series and Noah’s Ark.
If you’ve ever seen any of the aforementioned titles, Conway approaches The Boogens in the same aggressively positive way, which has mesmerizing results. Other than the old man doomsayer (Crazy Ralph redux) everyone is good-natured and upbeat. And Conway shoots to reflect this: sharp, clear, beautiful photography (shot in Utah, Taft’s home base), the snow-covered trees, roads, and homes providing a sense of gorgeous and sunny desolation; if you’re going to be isolated and stalked by carnivorous mine spawn, you might as well enjoy the view, right?
The casting and screenplay are what set up the film for success; it’s a very limited cast (essentially seven featured players, with a couple extra added in as critter chum), but the script by David O’Malley (Fatal Instinct) and Jim Kouf (The Hidden), writing as Bob Hunt, gives us better-realized-than-usual characters, with dialogue that for the most part rings true. (Except when they talk about The Boogens. It’s kind of hard to sell that reality.)
So in essence, you have family filmmakers imposing their idea of what constitutes a horror film. They seem to set their template on ’50s sci-fi: small cast, low budget, rubbery monsters. The difference being modern audiences would find that passé; so they inject it with a bit of nudity and some well-placed moments of gore, like sprinkling ghost pepper sauce on a house salad. And it works for a few reasons: 1) once the cast members ingratiate themselves, the kills hit harder than expected; 2) Conway has a keen eye for suspense, creating some memorable set pieces; and 3) it plays like a slasher, albeit hockey masks are exchanged for tentacled, turtle-faced (and toothy) Squidwards. (The Boogens’ design is quite charming—truly a face only Larry Cohen could love.) Everything from the music to the POV shots sing to the teenage dream; and while some may call it pandering, I would call it accidentally inspired.
The Boogens also makes good use of its minimal locations, especially the mine; you can feel the dankness coming off of every darkened corner and tunnel. (See: Paramount’s other underground liaison from the same year, My Bloody Valentine, for more spelunking splatter.) Just don’t question why the tunnels lead to every home in town and you’ll be fine. (Don’t ask me—I’m as stumped as you are.)
Why this one never caught on is a mystery to me; it works as a creature feature (although it could use a little more creature), the characters are nice enough to take home for dinner (while some end up as dinner), and it acts like a slasher in atomic clothing. Just remember that hugs are food for the soul; so reach out, and let The Boogens envelop you in its rubbery arms. Everybody (make that everything) needs love, especially the forgotten.
The Boogens is available on Blu-ray from Olive Films.