The Boneyard (1991) Review by RevTerry

 
Kids in horror movies have a horrible track record, just like children and action films. A misplaced, whiney spawn in a supposedly mature film series can really fuck up the mood. If you go far enough into any long-standing genre series, you will most likely find a sequel where bad writing was combined with tone-deaf noises and shoved into a small person costume for a starring role. The 80s loved adding youngsters to otherwise grown media, shamelessly shoving an avatar for the younger audience to sell a few toys on the side, or whatever, (actually I kinda miss the toy part) into bloody R rated films. It hardly ever works and didn't go over any better when I myself was a youth. It's rampant really, but there are a few that stand out. Some of my favorite bad ones include the bratty, Mormon looking youngster in RoboCop 2 (1990) and the Krueger possessed Jacob in  A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989). What the fuck is with the dream child shit, who thought that was a good idea? How did Wes Craven not hurt someone? It pains me to make it through the moments that have poor Whit Hertford dressed up like a miniature version of Freddy (and I watch a lot a bullshit). At least RoboCop 2 added some tacky depth, with the fact that Murphy couldn't just run in and start shooting spoiled little shits as he would normally with adult criminals, even if that kind of negates some of the entertainment we showed up for in a RoboCop movie.  Anyway, it just usually fails when they stick a kid in the lead, in anything really. I'm not talking shit on the youth themselves--(I'm still with you Edward Furlong) it's the whole package they are stuck with. It's in the basic writing they are given and only exacerbated by their sometimes fledging talent. The really fucked up part is that kids can be scary, well... kid shaped things anyway. As Charles Band (just) keeps attempting to show everyone, spooky shit can come in some small-ass packages. Using children as monsters is a whole different thing since children are kind of creepy already.  In keeping with the same era for the effective human spawn in horror, my brain jumps to Gage Creed from Pet Sematary (1989) first. After all the gore I have consumed with my eyeballs, that little pasty toddler still ranks pretty high. Say what you will about the Stephen King adaptation as a whole, but with little to no make-up, that milky little undead nightmare is on point. Undead tots are scary, I don't know if it's the size or what, but if a little corpse came after me, I would run (manliness be damned). Especially if it's Gage or something all rotted out and gross like in The Boneyard (1991).
The film opens with detective Jersey Callum (Ed Nelson) and his green partner Gordon (James Eustermann) dropping in unannounced on psychic Alley Oates (Deborah Rose) who obviously hasn't left her house for a while. Miss Oates, we learn, used to work for the police department as a consultant, using her gift/curse to help solve violent murders before going into retirement for somewhat traumatic but murky reasons. After being roused from her pile of dirty laundry and thoroughly coaxed, she agrees to come down to the station to look into a string of strange happenings the detective is having trouble with. Recently, a mortician had turned himself in, claiming to have “ghouls” locked in a basement. When the police went to his business, they found the decomposing bodies of three children and signs that the mortician had been feeding the tots pieces of human flesh. At a standstill (and kind of weirded out), the police, Callum specifically, are hoping that Oats can shed some light on the fucked up situation, possibly bringing the unknown victims some closure. Detective Callum shows Oats the videotaped confession of the mortician, Chen (Robert Yun Ju Ahn),  in which he describes a curse upon his family, one that requires him to play servant to some kind of ancient evil. The mortician explains that the bodies were, in fact, dangerous creatures that would rise again if not contained. When Oats has had enough of the crazy guy babblings, the group heads to the police mortuary (aka the boneyard). While there, they are forced to view the body on closed-circuit television for legal reasons, so a doctor Shepard (Norman Fell) shows them the dead kids with well-meaning, but misaimed social niceties, from down in the basement. Unable to make a connection through the fuzzy tube television screen, Oats asks if she would be able to get a lock of hair with the hopes that physical contact will show her something. The doctor on the TV screen agrees and pulls out some scissors. However, before she can get ahold of the hair, the “dead” youngsters jump off their corpse carts to the surprise of everyone (except Mr. Chen) and start running around the facility killing people (and doing other freaky magical shit). Somehow during the chaos, the group gets locked in the basement and must face off against the little moldy monsters who have taken to possessing (or maybe infecting) their victims in grotesque ways, effectively reproducing. Oats and Callum must combine their skills (and smooth out Oats' personal issues) if they are going to survive the night and solve the mystery of the freaky-ass dead moppets. At some point, there is also a giant fucked up poodle-beast complete with a pink bow, and somebody kind of melts.
The Boneyard has a dry, almost gumshoe-esque feel to it but with cartoon charm. Not quite noir, the story feels like just one of the main character’s many adventures as it's extremely comfortable in its strange skin. If I didn't know better, I would think the film was adapted from a single book in a series of supernatural detective novels you might find at the supermarket. The character Oats and her relationship with the world around her, especially the detective Callum, feel seasoned as if they have had time to build together and planted roots. At times I get a hint of Kolchak the Night Stalker (1974-1975) as the film uses a similar flavor of hard-boiled goofball storytelling. Our flawed but unfaltering duo (Oates and Callum) almost look accustomed to the strange happenings around them, you get the idea it's not the first time they have gone up against some kind of unexplained madness together, and it won't be the last. The well worn almost dusty feel works for it, it is a bizarre, dangerous fictional world while still leaning on the familiar or even bland parts of its influences. It takes a little bit to get going, borrowing the bone structure of a quirky crime show pilot. A lot of time is spent building a case or collecting clues, even though when it's all over very little investigation was actually needed. The comic book tint in the film’s universe harkens to Cast a Deadly Spell (1991 and its semi-sequel Witch Hunt 1994) but with less of the Dick Tracy surrealism. The pseudo-noir build-up leads into a cliche horror lockdown which splits the film and ignites the more horror-laden aspects. After it picks up speed, it takes on a Full Moon-like, isolated back and forth between the gang of survivors and the pint-sized zombies. Like a later Charles Band movie, its story never quite commits to terror, and the creep factor is left up to the effects and editing (which oddly enough, in this case, were both partly done by the same guy). Plenty of the movie’s details are divulged with little or no payout, and the explanations behind the events feel like the wrap of an X-Files episode, only “over” because the threat can be considered neutralized and, possibly, soon forgotten. It is carefree enough that the near-dead ends don't hurt it, and the extended television episode effect ends up working in its favor. There is spacey padding between moments, and each scene seems to go on longer than its content. The crawl aims to create an eerie atmosphere and highlight the pain of Oats’ abilities despite the tendency to roll over into cornball antics without notice. It's only effective about half the time, but the technique reminds me of early Sam Rami or dramatic Hollywood films made two decades before. Even if it meanders a little, the movie never wanders enough to lose my attention. It helps that the story rides a great line between self-aware B-movie antics and serious shlock. Once it starts getting crazy and magic mutants start popping up, little matters beyond the survival of the main characters. It kind of fools you at first, coming across like something your aunt might pick up from the library, until the cadavers are melting and giant googly-eyed abominations are squirting blood-goo everywhere like a well-budgeted Troma flick.
The television-like style carries over to the technical aspects for the most part. In a lot of ways, it feels like it was built by combining two or more episodes of an unaired program together with unused fluff to film its runtime (`a la anime ova or something like the Kolchak TV movies). As I touched on, the scenes seem to stick around longer than they need to, sometimes to just survey around the room. The film’s editing plays heavily into the horror elements as well as the comical tone where the writing is thin or off-subject, with a few fun zooms for effect at opportune times. When they finally show up and start moving around, the practical creature effects are the highlight of the film. The tiny, crusty zombie kids illicit some real shudders when first animated--before becoming something closer to the “Things” from the Cat in the Hat book. Prosthetic work on the faces is consistently unsettling, despite the fact that at some point, I think I saw one do a cartwheel. I imagine it's what you would get if you bred the zombies from a Lucio Fulci movie and the Twilight Zone movie-version of the “There's Something on the Wing” gremlin. Their victim-army ranges from makeup crafted Return of the Living Dead callbacks to oversized, slimy, cartoon-eyed puppets that look like something that might pop up in a manga adaptation of Ghostbusters (if there already isn't one). Extremely detailed, a little silly and filled with the kind of shlop you only get in the days before computer graphics, the creature effects make amends for any slow points at the beginning that may have shaken a few viewers. The bright greens and yellows of the grotesque fluids break up the drab khaki and grey the film is built around, giving it a pay off akin to the final panels of an EC comic set in the 50s. The music is ambitious as fuck if not a little off at times. Its role in the beginning scenes helps sell the straight horror vibe, but it slowly loses focus as the film drops the ploy for the more openly ridiculous. Make sure to stick around for the horribly confused and misplaced pop song that brings in the end credit.
The film was written and directed by special effects designer James Cummins. The work on this film’s creature would cap off a career in effects that spanned ten years and included credits on classics like The Thing (1982) and Enemy Mine (1985). Cummins would direct two more films (Dark:30 1993 and Harbinger 1996) and even move into children's books before dying in 2010 from heart complications. The film was completely filmed and had started final production in 1989 but got its straight to video release in 1991. Deborah Rose plays Oates with a tired, annoyed style that takes a unique route in the washed-up private dick trope. Up to this point, she had played mostly small roles in television and films, none of which I could point out to you. This film's psychic is her first starring endeavor as well as her last acting gig ever (as far as I can tell). Rose’s style, mixed with the writing, makes it feel like we are watching the exploits of another film’s background character, in a good way, as if the bus driver from some teen sex comedy also solves violent crimes on the weekends. She's a strange pick, but it plays off well, and I could see her on her own Monk style show only with voodoo and slippery gore instead of whatever happens on Monk. Hollywood veteran Ed Nelson plays old-school detective Jersey Callum. Jersey feels like a natural fit for Nelson’s brand of ham and pulls from a few of his previous roles, of which he has plenty. Piercing as always, Phyllis Diller appears (sans her wig) as the boneyard receptionist, throwing in her normal brand of comic relief and providing a reason for a poodle to be in the building. Norman Fell plays a government mortician who wears a ponytail and can't really read a room. I have no idea if it's what he was going for, but the drawn-out, awkward exchange between him and the group, via closed circuit television, is the kind of comedy people only really started appreciating almost twenty years later and on mostly on Adult Swim. There's a good chance he was just phoning it in, but it works for me.
The Boneyard is a peaceful blend of made for TV detective tropes, child zombies and body slime. It's based in the familiar but makes some strange choices in its execution that pay off in memorable ways. There is a lot going on and most of it doesn't matter, but it helps the world feel broken-in, like this is just one of its stories. Honestly, I'm still ready for the further adventures of Oats and Callum. It's not the scariest film in the world, it's more fun than anything, but when those little fuckers jump off the table and snarl for the first time--it's pretty fucking unsettling. The fact that they are bite sized only adds to the creep factor. So I guess sometimes the ungrown and horror can mix, just as long they are playing the creature and not the lead (and definitely not mini-Freddy). Nothing against kid actors as a group--they are just more believable as disgusting inhuman creatures, like the ones you see running free range at Walmart.
 1h 38min | 1991
Director: James Cummins
Writer: James Cummins 

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Review by:
RevTerry


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