The Boogens (1981) Retrospective

The story is centered around an abandoned mine in the Colorado Mountains west of Denver, sealed up by a disastrous cave-in in 1912, in which 27 miners were entombed. Modern miners, seeking big profits by mining precious metals, re-open the mine but unwittingly unleash death and terror as vicious, blood-thirsty beasts are awakened and unleashed after 70 years.

Park City, itself an old mining town and now converted into one of the nation’s finest winter sports and recreation areas, proved an ideal location.

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Released during the glut of dead teen flicks that proliferated through the 1980s and after the success of Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), The Boogens (1981) is an unabashedly old school monster movie. As if in rebuttal to the “slashers,” in which libidinous teens high on cheap beer and affordable pot stripped down and lined up to be julienned by a masked predator, The Boogens restricts its dramatis personae to marriage-minded young adults and some crusty pensioners, laying its winter-set tale of terror in the Colorado Rockies, far removed from any sorority row or lakefront summer camp. The film begins (following a title card accompanied by a Herrmannesque musical sting) with a plaintive arrangement for harmonica and strings laid over a montage of vintage “gold rush” photographs in which every subject looks to modern eyes like Alferd Packer or a Donner Party survivor. These images are intercut with a succession of newspaper headlines chronicling cave-ins, deaths and strange attacks on miners which forced the now ironically-named Hope Mine to be shut down in 1913. Cross fade to the present as said mine is reopened after seventy odd years, with the employees of a modern day mining outfit paying the ultimate price for not letting sleeping monsters lie.

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In localizing horror within the confines of a long-shuttered structure, The Boogens puts a new face on the old haunted house trope utilized in countless novels, stage plays, and in such films as The Cat and the Canary (1927), The Haunting (1963), The Legend of Hell House (1973) and The Shining (1980). The backstory of unfortunate occurrences, the testimony of an addled survivor, the trip to the archives, dire warnings, strange sounds in the night and a sins-of-the-fathers angle of karmic retribution point to a time honored tradition; the script even provides the labyrinth of subterranean shafts that serve the Boogens (never named in the film) as a conduit to consumption with the equivalent of a secret sliding panel in an egress into the cellar of the protagonists’ rented home. Made for $600,000 (nearly twice the budget of Halloween), the film benefits from the same old-fashioned, no frills approach that producer Charles E. Sellier, Jr. brought to such quasi-documentary, family-oriented ventures In Search of Noah’s Ark (1976), The Mysterious Monsters (1976) and Beyond and Back (1978). Sellier and director James L. Conway enjoyed greater license on this Taft International Pictures release in the form of cursing, sexual frankness, and discreet nudity but the charm of The Boogens is in the just-the-arguable-facts approach of those Sunn Classic Pictures hits, which seasoned even its Biblical subjects with the tawdry aftertaste of tabloid exploitation.

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Given the film’s budget, it would have been unlikely for The Boogens not to have turned a profit yet a sequel never materialized. Despite the endorsement of horror novelist Stephen King (who praised it as “a wildly energetic monster movie” in Twilight Zone Magazine), the film faded into the background of a decade lousy with franchised fright. In retrospect, it is not difficult to appreciate why The Boogens failed to become a horror event on par with Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), which seems a possible inspiration. Both on a technical and a narrative level, The Boogens seems behind the curve of what was then becoming the state of the genre. John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) jumped through the same hoops (complete with a menu of unsuspecting characters falling victim to an alien entity) and its descent into the maelstrom has lost little shock value over the intervening quarter century.

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Producer Charles E. Sellier

The Boogens, a film that was supposed to be, in Sellier’s words, “Journey to the Center of the Earth for the 1980s.” But a buyout of Sunn by Taft Broad- casting in late 1980 changed all that, and The Boogens became a preview for Sellier as to how Taft would — and wouldn’t — do business. “Boogens was based on stories about miners and explorers who kept running into strange things; anybody who has spent a lot of time in a mine just gets fear in their eyes when they tell you about these happenings,” he says. ” ‘Boogens’ was what the miners called these things. The picture was in preproduction at Sunn when Taft bought us out, and they beefed up the sex and violence to reflect the change in ownership and viewpoint.

“I had lost control since I no longer had any say in the company, and was kind of there in name only,” continues Sellier, who stayed on to fulfill a seven-year contract, signed just prior to the Taft takeover. Boogens was already booked into theaters [for fall 1981] and had to be delivered, but since Taft didn’t want to follow through with the distribution arrangements, it was released through Ray and Clair’s company Jensen-Farley, which was the old Sunn distributorship. Fortunately, they cared enough to make the film a success.”

The Boogens was first written as a novel by Sellier and Robert Weverka from a story by Tom Chapman, who also wrote the first-draft screenplay. Chapman was subsequently rewritten by David O’Malley, whose script was in turn revised at Taft’s behest by Jim Kouf, who took credit under the pseudonym “Bob Hunt” (as he would on his subsequent genre film The Hidden). Needless to say, with five writers involved, things got a little jumbled and the original scenario was altered. “The plan was to give the film a realistic tone, so that it felt like it had actually happened and the camera was there to record it.” says Sellier of the movie, which was directed by Hangar 18’s James L. Conway. “But it ended up as more of a dramatic piece because of additional interplay between the kids. It also lost some of the backstory about the miners’ experiences.”

A major change was likewise made to the ending. The book concludes with everyone but a greedy landowner dead and the boogens about to pour out of the mountain, but Sellier decided that wouldn’t work on screen. “I knew that would be a very dissatisfying ending for the audience, so it was changed to a chase through the mine that ends with an explosion, stopping the boogens from getting out and allowing some of the characters to survive.”

But the harrowing experiences of the film’s protagonists were nothing compared to events behind the scenes, as Sellier reveals. “We started filming the cave scenes on a soundstage in Park City, Utah that used to be a supermarket, where we built huge sets and used spray foam. We didn’t know how flammable the stuff was and while we were shooting, the foam caught on fire. AH our cave sets were destroyed. We were only half done, and if you look closely, you’ll notice some discrepancies because we had to actually go down into the mines in Park City to finish the picture.”

Examining the boogens themselves as created by William Munns and Ken Horn proves a bit more difficult, as they are not clearly seen until the picture’s climax. “Since the budget was around $600,000, that obviously Influenced our approach,” says Sellier. “But I’ve always felt that less is more just like in the old monster movies where seeing only part of the creature let your imagination run wild. The boogens definitely work, though they scare the hell out of me every time I see the film.”

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“The Boogens “ Creature/Special Effects William Munns

Munns was recommended to the producers of The Boogens by Boone Narr of Gentle Jungle. “In that film’s original script,” says Munns, “the creature had every repulsive organ or appendage to be found in nature fangs, claws, talons, gelatinous membranes, a body that can ooze through a heating grate, and yet could rip a door off its hinges. It seemed that the writer had no clear vision of the creature at all, and was simply casting off descriptive terms that sounded very impressive, but added up to a very strange conglomerate. In my first bid, I sent a number of pictures of various parts of animals; the mouth-structure of a lamprey, for instance, which is a circular sucker with rows of teeth, the arms of a preying mantis, the tentacles of a squid just to suggest some forms and textures we might use.

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Then they showed me their initial concept, sketched up by Paul Staheli, the production designer, which he adapted from a copy of a sheep’s brain, and I built a quarter-scale model. They looked it over and decided that it was not quite vicious-looking enough; we went to a second one, with a face that looked more like a shark’s. They still felt they wanted something a little more horrifying, so I flew out and, working right in their offices, sculpted something a little more classical  nose, great big eyes and sharp teeth which they finally approved. We kept the convoluted body, and added a skirt-like structure around the body, like the foot of a snail, with the idea that the claw-like appendages and tentacles could extend from that. Since they didn’t know whether these would need to stick out from the side or the back, they were pleased with that.”

 

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Actor John Crawford (Brian Deering)

One of his more recent genre appearances was as yet another lawman, the sheriff in The Boogens. He did the movie because “I was sitting one day in Palm Springs on a nice warm day. and you know when they talk about a snow picture, you think. ‘Well it can’t be too bad.” because you are there in the warmth of Palm Springs with a heated pool and all that, so I said what the hell, it might be fun to do.

“However. I couldn’t believe that title, because it sounded to me like a baby talk for Bogey Man or something like that. But that’s exactly what it was! How they arrived at it is very interesting: They put the title in a computer survey with several others, and this was the one that got the biggest reaction; because everyone has been told when you were a kid. “Don’t go down there, the bogey man will get you.’ I begged them, since I had done a little writing, don’t play around with that word Boogens too much, don’t even mention it, because you’re going to get the wrong kind of laughs and the title is bad enough.”

Stephen Kings The Boogens Movie Review Twilight Zone Magazine v02 n04 1982

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The Boogens (Taft International) Directed by James L. Conway Screenplay by David O’Malley and Bob Hunt

 It isn’t just kind of a relief; it is a distinct relief. It isn’t a message movie disguised as a horror movie (Wolfen), not some intellectual director’s attempt to rise above the genre” (The Shining, Ghost Story) not a snuff film disguised as a horror movie (Maniac).

It’s-gasp!-an “old-fashioned pretty good low-budget” horror movie. It’s The Boogens, a meller from Taft International. A lot of my horror-movie going friends have had very little good to say about this one. But most of those guys I’m sorry to say it-have gotten uptown tastes since we were all kids together and setting the creeps over Boris Karloff in The Terror or Jack Nicholson in The Little Shop of Horrors. They’ve gotten weird. speaking well for scenes which don’t horrify and defending scenes which only turn the stomach, and in the meantime, much of what made the genre our toy to start with has gotten lost.. or maybe it only went underground, like the Boogens themselves.

I first saw the film (appropriately enough) in Pittsburgh, where I was doing a horror film with George Romero. Taft International, which makes sunny (if often stupid) nature films such as Mountain Family Robinson when it is wearing its Sunn Classics Dr. Jekyll face, had picked Pittsburgh as one of three or four cities where Boogens should take an advance bow.

I saw it on a Sunday afternoon, and while the theater was only about a quarter full, the audience had obviously never heard any of my uptown friends hold forth on The Horror Movie as Existential Art Form at cocktail parties–they were having a great time. I saw it again, in New York City, this time with my wife, about two months later. This time the theater was filled almost to capacity (the film had just opened), but the audience was still having a great time.

The Boogens, directed by James L. Conway, has a Roger Corman simplicity. A Colorado silver mine is closed by a series of explosions and cave-ins in 1912: miners are trapped, and most of them die (all of this background is elegantly presented over the credits in a series of frontier style newspaper headlines and gorgeous sepia photographs). Seventy years later, a mining company reopens the mine. The Boogens are in the mine. What else do you need?

Well, my uptown friends might say, how about some plot? How about some acting? How about some special effects? How about some direction? Has this film got any of those little non-essentials?

Well…..ahem. The actors are either in the Young and Fresh or Old and Grizzled category. You’ll recognize all of the Old and Grizzled players and probably be able to name none of them (I knew Jon Lormer, The Old Man Who Cries Doom, but only because he had done a piece of work in Crepshow a month or so before, but they do their usual creditable job, in fact, I’ve thought for some time that there ought to be some sort of special award–the Strother Martin Award, maybe, or the Elisha Cook Jr. Award–for these dependable players who show up in film after film, playing seriously and competently in each, even if many of them are the most outrageous trash imaginable.

Among the younger players I saw no nascent Steve McQueens or Jack Nicholsons, but Fred McCarren is pleasant enough (he bears a weird resemblance to the late John Belushi), and his colleagues-Anne Marie Martin and Med Lorey among them-are rather more believable than the hacks who have droned their way through hundreds of low budget drive-in epics; and the female lead, Rebecca Balding (yeah, I know, she ought to do something about that name), is considerably better than that.

There are even a couple of genuine comic turns, which is something of a rarity-as any true horror movie fan will tell you, most humor in low-budget fright-flicks is strictly unintentional. Following a near cave-in when the mine is being reopened, one of the mining students says to his buddy: “You smell something?” “No,” the other replies, “why? Because,” the first says confidentially, “I just shit my pants”

All of them are nearly upstaged by a little dog which is so cute that you immediately want to kill it (“Lassiel Lassie” McCarren cries urgently at one point when this idiotic animal begins to bark a warning, “is something wrong with Timmy?). One of the movie’s small rewards is the fact that the Boogens actually do kill it: they come up through a living room heating grate and strangle the miserable, yappy little beast with their tentacles. It’s moments like this that lend The Boogens its eccentric but undeniable charm.

Special effects? One would like to be able to say something like, “Considering shoestring budget of The Boogens, they’re fantastic.” That wouldn’t be precisely the truth, however. The best we can say is that, considering the shoestring budget of The Boogens, the effects, done by William Munns, are passable. (And I’d like to point out that “bad” can be so much worse: the crennelated canvas bag that was supposed to be Caltiki, The Immortal Monster, the scale-model bowling alley overwhelmed by raspberry Jell-o in the sequel to the Blobs the castle keep in Time Bandits, which was built from what could only be Lego blocks.)

What raises the effects from the passable to the gruesomely serviceable is the way that director Conway deftly keeps the Boogens off screen; in a throwback to the low-budget horror pictures of the forties and fifties, we don’t even get a look at the little devils until the picture is better than three quarters over. And when we do, they are used in a way which makes us nervous enough to overlook their most obvious flaws. While it wouldn’t be fair to tell you exactly what the Boogens look like, it seems fair enough to tell you that they snare their prey with the aid of nasty, whip like tentacles … except that, when we actually get a close look at them, they don’t appear to have any tentacles.)

For myself, I found one of the charms of The Boogens to be its extravagant, all-out embrace of what may be fantasy’s most liberating statement: “I don’t have to explain this, you explain this.” One feels, after fifteen minutes or so that the picture will degenerate into something fairly unpleasant and completely predictable: a cult of miners who have been living underground, latter-day Sawney Beanes who have decided to come out of the tunnels instead of out of the closet (the movie’s poster art, with skeletal hands coming out of the ground, contributes to this impression).

Instead we are treated to this wildly energetic, often comic monster movie, complete with secret passages, an underground lake, piles of bones , and the Boogens themselves. It is a little like watching a daffy transposition of Robert Townley Watson’s classic novella of subway infestation, “Far Below,” to a rural setting.

Now, don’t get me wrong this is not a work of genius on a low budget. It doesn’t have the elusive class of a film like Martin, the bleak vision of film like Eraserhead, or even the manic, somehow ominous energy of Don Coscorelli’s Phantasm. But for all of that, I think you ought to catch The Boogens if it comes around to your local indoor during the midsummer doldrums (possible), or if it shows up at your local passion pit as half of a double bill or one-fifth of a holiday dusk-to-dawner (probable). It’s an endangered species, this one: genus low-budget melodrama.

Is that damning with faint praise? If we were discussing some “heavier” film genre, perhaps it would be–but horror movies were always supposed to be fun, damn it, fun, and when I left the theater after The Boogens, that’s how I felt … as if I’d had fun. Of course, low-budget pix always have their disappointments. When good old Jon Lormer croaks, “These tunnels go under the whole town,” I waited eagerly, clutching my dollar-fifty tub of Butterpop, to see if the Boogens were going to pop up in the local general store, the millinery, the (heheheh) movie theater, perhaps, I thought, they’ll even come charging up through the concrete at the local Sunoco station, reprising that moment in another great low-budget epic, Alligator, when the beast comes right up through the sidewalk and chases after the little kid in the I’M A PEPPER T-shirt.

Well, nothing of the kind happened, but I still had a pretty good time. I think you will, too, and so I recommend The Boogens to you cheerfully and heartily. And maybe they come up all over town in the sequel. We open on the local Sunoco station, three months later. It’s early morning, and nothing is stirring yet. Then, from under the Sunoco station’s tarmac, we hear the sound of burrowing… ID

 

 

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The Boogens (1981) Pressbook

 

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Lobby Cards

 

CAST/CREW
Directed by   James L. Conway
Produced by Charles E. Sellier Jr.
Written by     David O’Malley Jim Kouf (as Bob Hunt)
Music by Bob Summers
Production Design by Paul Staheli

Rebecca Balding as Trish Michaels
Fred McCarren as Mark Kinner
Anne-Marie Martin as Jessica Ford
Jeff Harlan as Roger Lowrie
John Crawford as Brian Deering
Med Flory as Dan Ostroff

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
Starlog 223
Fangoria 147
Fangoria 026
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Twilight Zone Magazine v02 n04 1982

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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