The Boneyard (1991) Retrospective

 SUMMARY
The film plunges into the nightmarish experiences of a portly, depressed psychic (Deborah Rose), whose involvement in a grisly child-murder case leads her and her detective partner (Ed Nelson) to an imposing, fortress-like mortuary. Chen (Robert Yun Ju Ahn), the owner of the funeral home and prime suspect in the case, claims the three mummified corpses in question are not children but ancient demons known as “kyoshi”. It seems the little monsters have been around for centuries as a result of an age-old curse and can only be placated with offerings of human flesh — with which the mortician has been supplying them his entire life. When Chen is jailed on murder charges, the under-fed ghouls awaken in search of dinner, trapping the staff inside the mortuary walls and devouring them. The survivors, including Rose and Nelson, use every means at their disposal to combat the demons, which have possessed the bodies of morgue attendant Mrs. Poopinplatz (Phyllis Diller) and her poodle, mutating them into hideous monsters.

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PRODUCTION/BEHIND THE SCENES
The film, since the entire project was shot at the end of 1989 during a frenetic five weeks in rural Statesville, North Carolina on a budget of less than $5 million, a pittance for any effects film these days. Cummins, however, doesn’t view his film as a schlock potboiler. “From the time we began this project,” he said, “I’ve never felt like we were working on a low-budget film. That was never my attitude. My intent was to do a horror film that still had integrity. I didn’t want to see someone’s breasts falling out; that’s cliche by now.”

Cummins revels in his film’s bizarre nature. “The film gets more absurd the further you get into it,” he said. “It’s played purely straight. But there are laughs; you just cannot have a nine-foot-tall killer poodle and not get laughs. It stops the movie cold. It’s not horror comedy. It’s not even black comedy. It just rolls along and gets stranger and stranger.”

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One of the most unusual facets of the film is the reason for the existence of the ghouls, an idea based on actual legend. The curse is derived from a Chinese myth about ghouls called kyoshi. In this case, the children are not dead, only in hibernation. Seems they actually died back in 16th century China, and were brought back to un-life by a sorcerer. However, whenever they get hungry they attack living people, so the curse of this family and its descendants through the centuries has been to keep these kids locked up and fed, until someone screws up at the film’s beginning and lets them out.
 
The director’s grasp of filmmaking sense was much in evidence when he set out to create The Boneyard script. “I think in terms of being commercial when I write, and that attitude was very much on my mind when I wrote this script,” he states. “But what really sold the money people was the picture on the script’s cover of a poodle with a human bone in its mouth. You could see that there was a hook to market this with.”

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Getting financial backing for The Boneyard ultimately turned out to be easier than casting the film. “We negotiated with the people we wanted, and at the last minute, we lost them.” recalls Cummins. “Alice Cooper was all set to play a character. but his managers kept jerking us around until we were forced to go elsewhere. Clu Gulager was set to play the older cop until he had to pull out for medical reasons. Fortunately for us, Ed Nelson, who was my second choice, was able to jump in at the last minute.

“We shot fewer takes.” Cummins goes on. “The editing choices were simpler. The special effects were all done live. We had no second unit and no time for insert shots. That was unfortunate because, in the case of the poodle ghoul, we were forced to shoot more master shots than close-ups. Overall, the creature effects work rather well.”

“When James came to talk to me about the part, we went up to my wig closet and looked through all of them.” recalls Phyllis Diller, who makes a rare dramatic turn as Miss Poopinplatz. “After a while, he said, ‘Well, if you didn’t mind, we’d much rather you play the part with your real hair.’ That was a major thrill for me because it was the first time anybody wanted to see my real hair. Of course, it’s kind of appropriate, because my hair is a horror.”

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“Phyllis Diller was always somebody we wanted for the role of the morgue operator, yet we didn’t think we could touch her. But she was thrilled with the idea of doing a horror film and turning into a monster. What was interesting about the casting is that, indirectly, it dictated a change in tone for the film. When we started out, this was a much darker movie. The tone changed when the cast was set.”

Diller is a little vague on filming anecdotes, but jokes that the role did give her a once-in-a-lifetime acting opportunity. “I knew I reached the peak of my acting career when I got to throw up into the camera,” she cackles. “As far as this being an acting challenge-hell. there is no challenge. I’ve been playing Poopinplatz types all my life. I was just playing to type.”

James Cummins Interview0

How did the idea for The Boneyard come to you?
JAMES CUMMINS: I had been fooling around with an illustration of a prehistoric poodle, and thought it would make a great monster for a fun horror movie. I literally wrote the script around that concept. By the way, the dog eventually cast as Floofsoms in The Boneyard is the same punk poodle that belonged to Elvira in Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

Was it arduous handling both directing and FX duties?
JAMES CUMMINS: Bill Corso was hired to oversee the effects based on my designs, and he brought such enthusiasm and talent to the project that I trusted him to execute them right. Not everything went off without a hitch, but I am eternally grateful to Bill for doing such a bang-up job on a wildly ambitious project with such a shoestring budget.

There are moments of grotesque tenderness in the film, namely in the scenes featuring the zombified children.
JAMES CUMMINS: My main concern was how to make the pathos readable to an audience. Since the ghost on the porch and the ghouls were kids, I relied on their childlike tendencies to make them relatable. Luckily, I had great musical assist from composer John Lee Whitener.

Can you give me one telling anecdote about the shoot?
JAMES CUMMINS: Deborah Rose, who played troubled psychic Alley Oates, relied on Method acting, which conflicted with the other actors’ more natural styles. This led to a lot of wasted time and tension on the set. It got so bad that during a screaming match between Deborah and Ed, I saw Ed’s hand make a move for an ax that was sitting on a table between them. God only knows what might’ve happened if I hadn’t stepped between the pair and defused the situation.

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The zombie children are discarded during the later stages of the film for a progressively campier approach and a succession of crazy monsters.
JAMES CUMMINS: It was a misstep on my part to go that crazy with the Poopinplatz and Floofsoms ghouls, but I think I acknowledged that when Dana, the attempted suicide played by Denise Young, laughs at the appearance of the killer poodle. That helps ground the creature a bit in reality—as kooky as it was.

What was the most difficult aspect of making The Boneyard?
JAMES CUMMINS: Besides getting the flick funded? Personally, it was mustering the sheer physical stamina that directing on a daily basis required. Also, shooting in the dead of winter inside an abandoned hospital without heat didn’t help. It was so cold the FX goo froze to the floor!

Any film featuring a gigantic bipedal poodle wearing a pink bow deserves our respect…
JAMES CUMMINS: Love or hate the movie, I’m proud that I was able to get The Boneyard in the can and accomplish what I set out to do—which was to make a fun but suspenseful horror film.

BEHIND THE SCENES/INTERVIEWS
Ed Nelson is no stranger to creature features. He acted and later turned up inside the big crustacean in Roger Corman’s Attack of the Crab Monsters and produced another fright fave, The Flesh Eaters. And so it comes as little surprise that when offered the lead in The Boneyard. Nelson wanted to know what the monsters were about.

“That’s not exactly the case,” corrects the veteran actor. “The first thing I looked at was the script, but who was doing the creature effects and what they looked like was also important, because I did not want to be associated with an inferior monster movie.”

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Nelson’s role, small-town detective Jersey Callum, proved a welcome assignment. “I was happy that I was getting to play the lead, which doesn’t happen too often these days,” nods Nelson, “and that it was an older character that had some substance to it. I liked the idea that I wasn’t playing this real sharp detective. He’s not Columbo, even though he dresses like him. Jersey’s just this humanistic detective who suddenly finds himself confronted by a very frightening situation.”

Nelson, who sums up his Boneyard experience as a whole lot of running and jumping,” gives high marks to Cummins as a director. “He knows what he wanted, and he knew what I could do,” Nelson praises. “It’s not like I haven’t played this kind of role before, so it was nice that he let me run with it a little bit.”

Nelson sees a few parallels between his current low-budget gig and his days in the Corman stable. “The makeup and effects have definitely gotten more sophisticated,” he muses. “When I did Attack of the Crab Monsters, I carried the crab costume on my shoulders and worked the eyes from inside with some wires. Watching (The Boneyard’s] radio-controlled creatures and the amazing things they are doing with makeup was an exciting education for me.

“But there are some things that never change,” chuckles Nelson. “The big one is that getting things right in the first few takes is important because, more often than not, the first few takes is all you are going to get.”

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SPECIAL EFFECTS
Bill Corso seems too damned young to be making ghouls for a living. Freshfaced, exuberant, and given to high-pitched shrieks to emphasize a point of frustration or anger, Corso is the antithesis of the burnt-out Hollywood makeup designer, ulcer-ridden from years of meeting impossible schedules and enduring frantic directors and livid producers. There’s a good reason for that: THE BONEYARD was his first film as special effects makeup designer, and he says it’s an experience he’d rather not repeat.

“When we did this thing,” said Corso, “James [Cummins) told me, ‘I don’t have a lot of time, but we have enough time.’ Now, pre-production time was only two months. Here you have full makeup on this little dead girl, millions of prosthetics for these little kids, and two 12-foot-tall monsters.

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“When James finally gave me the job, my first reaction was: ‘How the hell am I going to do this?” laughs Corso, who claims the title of the youngest person to ever head up the FX team on a motion picture. “I figured nothing could be harder than working on The Blob. Boy, I found out what hard really means on this.”
 
According to Corso, Cummins came up with some rough initial creature designs, which he subsequently embellished to produce the final makeups. “The makeup and effects were pretty much by the book-the same prosthetics, mechanicals and radio-controlled stuff.“ Corso notes. “I had some wild ideas on how to do this stuff, but because of time and budget limits. I really had to compromise. I had a lot of ideas to make things different, but everything was so rushed that the paint was still drying on some of the creatures when we were shooting them.”

James did the budget, because I had never done a budget before. I looked at it and said, ‘Where’s the fuckup money?’ And James said, ‘There is no fuckup money. We can’t afford mistakes. From that point on it was panic.

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“Let me give you an idea,”continued Corso. “James wanted this little girl to be the most pathetic thing ever seen. She had these fake legs, these tiny skeletal arms, and she was supposed to have this elaborate scene. It was going to be a dream sequence, and she was going to sing a little song, and at the end of the song she smiles and her head splits open. Well, we got it set upand we ended up having no time to shoot it at all.”

The razor-edged filming schedule cut into other plans as well: The Poopinplatz ghoul, which Corso originally envisioned as a puppet with huge spindly legs, ended upas a man in a suit, limiting the creature’s non-human look. And the Floofsom ghoul proved unwieldy. “It was too big to fit in the whole frame,” said Corso. “And we didn’t have time to shoot the legs. I wanted to show it stepping over bodies.”

The Diller ghoul was Corso’s favorite and his biggest letdown. “Phyllis was the one thing that I was really excited about doing,” said Corso. “But things were so rushed that I was actually putting the epoxy on the creature as we walked on the set. There was no time.”

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Corso felt that Cummins’ FX background would make the on-set working relationship a breeze. Things for the most part were good. but he does remember some tense moments. “We’re both effects guys, so I figured things would be cool.” Corso confides. “But the first day on the set, he says, ‘We’re going to blow this thing up.’ And I said, ‘What? You don’t show the poodle’s head in the very first shot and then blow it up.’ But I understand that he was under a lot of pressure with this movie, so he had a good excuse.”

Summed up Corso, who lost ten pounds and gained the flu during the shoot: “It was a really ambitious project, and if everybody had just a little more experience, we may have been able to pull it off … in a dream.”
 

CAST/CREW
Directed by   James Cummins
Produced by Richard F. Brophy
Written by     James Cummins

Starring
Ed Nelson
Deborah Rose
Norman Fell
James Eustermann
Phyllis Diller

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
Cinefantastique v22n01
Fangoria#301
Fangoria#096

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