Welcome back to Let’s Scare Bryan to Death, where I’m thrilled to be talking to one of the great voices working in horror journalism today, Terry Mesnard. Be it through his website Gayly Dreadful or through Scarred for Life, the podcast he co-hosts with Marybeth McAndrews, Mesnard’s analysis is always intelligent, deliberate, and playful.
Not surprisingly, before nominating a film to discuss, Mesnard did a little research to look at the movies I’ve covered in past installments. Given that so far I’ve covered films ranging from Brian De Palma staples to classic J-horror to queer giallo flicks, Mesnard had just one thought: “Bryan really needs to class up his column.” Enter the 1991 James Cummins horror comedy The Boneyard, a film that I had not even heard of before Mesnard suggested it. But when I saw the cover, featuring what appeared to be some sort of mutant poodle, I knew class was clearly the order of the day (SPOILER ALERT as we will be discussing some major plot points—narrative twists aren’t exactly the point of this movie, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it).
Like any proper horror comedy, the film opens on the topic of child murder as we meet Alley Coates (Deborah Rose), a psychometrist who’s burnt out on helping the police solve cases primarily involving dead or missing kids. She’s cajoled back into service by detective Jersey Callum (Ed Nelson), this time for a case centered on a local funeral director who was caught with the corpses of three children. Naturally, his pleas that the corpses are not children, but rather mummified ghouls are summarily dismissed, a decision that proves to be costly when said corpses revive and lay waste to the local mortuary. Trapped and left to fight their way out are Rose and Callum, along with Callum’s young partner Gordon (James Eustermann), a young woman named Dana (Denise Young) who had been misdiagnosed as dead after a suicide attempt (yes, really), and the cantankerous front desk worker Miss Poopinplatz (Phyllis Diller) with her dear poodle Floofsums.
Now, for those thinking there’s perhaps too much going on here, you’re not wrong. But there’s something oddly endearing about a movie willing to take this many big swings. Given when it came out, I’d assumed that it was one of those childhood movies that endeared Mesnard at a young age, so I was surprised to learn that he was introduced to it fairly recently as well.
I don't have a long history with this movie. I saw it in 2018 after listening to, I think it was Shock Waves? I'm not sure, it was some podcast that I was listening to and they were talking about this movie, and I went to look it up and I remember the VHS cover. It's not the one that's on the Blu-ray where it's the fluffy dog. It's like a creepy picture of a zombie-esque picture of Phyllis Diller's character, it's that face. And I remember seeing that in the horror aisle when I would go troll the video stores, and I never picked it up, I never looked at it, never watched it. I saw that picture again after listening to the podcast. I saw that image and it was like, “Oh, I kinda remember this movie.” And they were talking about how outrageous it was, and there was a Code Red movie that's currently out of print. And I say, “I'm just going to buy it and then I'm going to watch it.” And so I did and it just really… “blew me away” is probably the wrong thing to say about it. It just surprised me with how audacious it was, and it felt like it was probably the kind of death knell for the ’80s, the end of the ’80s. This came out in 1991, but it has a lot of the same sensibilities of ’80s films with the use of puppetry, the use of practical effects, and costuming that I think would later go away. So this felt kind of emblematic of that period.
While The Boneyard was never going to win any awards, it’s got some really interesting things going for it. Mesnard notes that it’s a rare horror movie set during Thanksgiving (along those lines, I should note that I also haven’t seen Blood Rage in case anyone wants to nominate that one for a future installment). Plus, given Cummins' background in makeup and special effects, it’s not surprising that the creature design in this movie was damn impressive given the budget. And as Mesnard points out, Cummins’ talents weren’t the only ones on display.
I've looked at some of the behind-the-scenes stuff that was on the very sparse Blu-ray. Someone really loves this movie because the back of the Code Red Blu-ray says that this was self-funded by Code Red on their credit card. This was a restoration of love by Code Red, so whoever paid for that, I thank you. Talking about the effects, you see the start of the careers of a lot of people who would go on to make phenomenal things. Bill Corso, this was his first movie. He would go on to do makeup work in Deadpool, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Species, and like 90 different movies and television episodes. And you had Andy Clement, who did a lot of lifecast models and effects. He was a sculptor on Army of Darkness, he was a lifecast maker for The Matrix, and the animatronics effects designer for Cloverfield. So you have all these movies later on that the people behind it kind of got their start in this movie, and it's wild to me.
Beyond the special effects, Cummins makes some intriguing decisions in terms of casting and thematic elements. Mesnard notes that the film caught his attention right off the bat with our introduction to Alley Coates.
I guess what I liked about her is that she's not your typical movie hero. She's large, she's an English professor, and she's depressed. And she isn't that kind of “film depressed.” She has really let her place go. When you first see her house, it looks like the scene of a crime. There are dishes that are just caked with grime and caked with filth, and she has lines in her kitchen where she's hanging her clothes. She is literally hiding, ready to die in a pile of clothes on her bed. I think Jersey, her detective friend, has even said that she's building a tomb for herself.
So you have this opening scene where she doesn't want to go help him because he is using her, basically, to bring peace to a lot of dead kids. And apparently this is an epidemic in this town. It happens often enough that she has to continually use her ability, which is weird and disturbing. You mentioned the scene with the zombie girl that shambles toward her, and I love the way this scene is staged because in any other movie this would be a moment of horror. This is a nightmare with this little girl with one arm that is a skeleton, reaching out for her. It should be horrific. Instead, she holds her and she gives her this big hug, and it's basically this thank you and it's a reminder of what Alley is doing for these poor dead kids.
Again, none of this seems like a setup for a comedy. And on one hand, Cummins does allow for a transition to the more bonkers elements of the film, creating increasingly outlandish monsters until by the end of the movie poor Alley is trying to escape Floofsums after he’s been turned into a giant demon poodle. But Cummins also tries to continue these threads of trauma and grief that don’t fully pay off. Mesnard does note, however, that there seems to have at least been an attempt to weave these elements together, particularly through the relationship between Alley and Dana.
I did notice that there was a connection between [Dana] and Alley, because Alley's given up on life and so has this young woman. I don't think it's necessarily followed through all the way, but I will say that's more than I would expect from a movie whose final heroic line is “fetch this” before throwing a pipe bomb to Floofsums. I appreciate that they are adding some kind of elements to it, although I will say with that one I wish they would either have somehow made it matter more to Alley realizing her self-worth, or that they just kind of not had it to begin with.
[Cummins] probably didn't have the chops [to pull off these tonal shifts]. He definitely didn't have the time or the budget, is what I'm assuming, to really explore that dynamic. But I will say that I do appreciate the concept of these two women, who for whatever reason are so depressed and willing to give up on life, who are thrown through a gauntlet of monsters and slime and come out the other side hopefully ready to face life. I think there is something there, and maybe I'm just kind of scratching and begging for it to be there, but there is something there that kind of resonated with me when I first saw this movie.
One area where Cummins indisputably drops the ball is in his backstory for the ghouls, which as Mesnard explains, uses one of the more unfortunate tropes to come out of this era.
I do wanna talk briefly about those ghouls, because if there is one huge fault (let's be honest, there's a lot of little faults in this movie), but if there's one huge fault it's the fact that this movie is emblematic of the ’80s and the early ’90s, where they're using Asian mysticism as the villain. The zombie children in particular have very exaggerated characteristics, and I've seen some of the drawings that were done and they were even more heightened in those. It's kind of upsetting, and it's also upsetting when you consider that there's a flashback where she is doing her psychometry and she sees this ancient sorcerer who is Asia,n but played by a white man, who is bringing to life this Asian boy played by a white girl who goes on to play all the ghouls in this movie. And watching the film, both in 2018 and now, it's a reminder to remember the time and also interrogate the negatives as we celebrate the “Floofsums.”
What makes these choices even more aggravating is that they’re unnecessary. They don’t add anything to the narrative beyond cringe-inducing xenophobia. What’s more, none of the characters of color are really given much to work with. The one Black character, Marty (Willie Stratford), doesn’t get much to do beyond throwing out a few amusing lines before getting unceremoniously killed off. This is very much a white people’s movie, but there is one twist that Mesnard appreciates.
The cast is uniformly old, which on one hand is kind of nice because you have a lot of older people in a movie that is normally reserved for the younger actors. You have Ed Nelson, who is this fantastic character actor who acted in hundreds of television episodes and just known for that kind of character in this, and then you also have Phyllis Diller.
Diller is clearly having a ball in the film, operating at an “11” in every one of her scenes, even before she gets turned into a giant demon puppet in the film’s climax. And Mesnard explains that Diller really enjoyed her experience on set.
There's an interview with her on the Blu-ray. First of all, she has the most wonderfully sardonic laugh, but they are interviewing her about this role and she said, “I love this movie, it was a lot of fun!” And she's talking about her character Poopinplatz, and she says, “She was a sweet old bitch, ha ha ha!” She's just having so much fun reminiscing about this film, and I think she's a phenomenal character in this movie for how little screen time she actually gets.
So while The Boneyard is quite flawed and is unlikely to wind up on any “hidden classics” lists, it has enough interesting elements to make it a really compelling watch. And Mesnard wouldn’t mind seeing someone take a crack at a remake.
Oh absolutely, I would love to see a modern interpretation of The Boneyard as long as it's not a CGI mess of a movie like The Thing (2011). I would love to see someone bring back the wild puppetry, or the wild practical effects, and just kind of do a throwback to the ’80s. And maybe focus more on the silliness of it and not try to have a really serious pontification on depression and self-harm. Just kind of focus on the joys of shooting a giant poodle. Bring out the comedy elements, bring out the camp, go-for-broke insanity and gonzo filmmaking that this film clearly wants to be.
I would love to see Sam Raimi direct it. I think this movie has a lot of nods to Evil Dead. And in some ways Aliens. The forklift at the end is definitely like a really cheap stand-in for the power loader, and the ghouls climbing through the vents, there is definitely Alien inspiration here.
You have little kids gnawing on corpses and dead bodies, and shoving their flesh into Phyllis Diller's mouth. It is a mix of WTF-ery and genuine moments of horror that I think I was distracted a lot from because the monsters are such caricatures. I would love to see Sam Raimi bring back his Evil Dead [motif]. One location, lots of crazy, over-the-top buffoonery. I'd love to see that happen.
[Image Credit: Above image of The Boneyard from Code Red / Kino Lorber Blu-ray cover.]