Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Boneyard

We've got another weird one here, folks.  Strap yourself in, we're taking a trip down to The Boneyard!

Released in 1991, The Boneyard has a screenplay that contains more ideas than it knows what to do with, mixing in bits of psychic powers, Chinese mythology, creepy zombies, wacky monsters, action movie explosions, and attempts at comedy.  It's quite the hodge-podge of whatthefuckery and the film can't seem to stay focused on any one idea, continually abandoning one thread for another.  This scattershot approach probably helps the movie more than it hurts it, although it complicates the story endlessly.
Police Lt. Jersey Callum (Ed Nelson) and his newbie partner Gordon Mullen (James Eustermann) pay a house visit on reclusive and semi-retired psychic investigator Alley Oates (Deborah Rose) in need of help on a baffling new case.  It seems the police have found the bodies of three children in the back of a local mortuary owned by a Mr. Chen and to make it worse it seems he had been feeding them pieces of his "clientele" while they were captive.  Unable to identify the badly decomposed bodies, Lt. Jersey is hopeful that Alley can use her powers to determine who the children are, how long they've been missing, and what exactly happened to them.

Alley Oates makes for an interesting and ununusual lead female character in a movie.  She's middle-aged, overweight, a heavy smoker, and kind of a sad sack.  She not the typical female-hero type, but her vulnerability gives way to her toughness and fortitude as the movie goes on, so she definitely has some of the action/horror movie heroine DNA in her.

She gained her abilities after the death of her daughter and has been in seclusion since the burden of her psychic powers and the public scrutiny became too much to bear.  She does however reluctantly agree to help out on the case, but only after having a freaky ass dream where her dead daughter gives her a big hug.  It's this short dream sequence that is the movie's first signal that things are going to get crazy and freaky.
Mr. Chen claims the children found at his mortuary are actually "kuei-shen," Chinese demons that he and his family have been cursed to keep under guard for centuries, "if they are not fed. . .they will feed!!," and stuff like that.  The police think he is crazy, so they take him down for a psyche evaluation,  but he never quite makes it (he steals an officer's revolver and kills himself).  Alley doesn't know what to make of Chen's story, but she needs to be in physcial contact with the bodies to get any sort of psychic reading, so they head down to the coroners office.
The coroners office, it should be noted, is it's own building, offsite from either the police station or a hospital, and apparently there is only one exit/entrance to the basement (where the bodies are) as all other entryways have been blocked off or are broken because it's an old building and they're closing down soon and relocating which means there is a minimal amount of staff wandering about.  Oh, and it's nicknamed "The Boneyard," so that's where the title comes from.

Working the front desk is Miss Poopinplatz (along with her poodle Floofsoms), a funny cantankerous old lady who gives Lt. Jersey a hard time about bringing Alley down to see the bodies.  She tells a couple jokes and lets out a big Phyllis Diller laugh at one point, which is totally fine as she's played by legendary comedian Phyllis Diller.
At the request of the director, Diller did this role without one of her trademark wigs.
Eventually Alley gets to view the bodies over a monitor thanks to the on-duty coroner Shepard (Norman Fell, sporting a big mustache AND ponytail) who then sends up a sample of hair for her to take a psychic reading off of.  Giving Alley some space to do her psychic thing, Jersey and Mullen head down to the basement to watch as Shepard starts to perform an autopsy on a just arrived female suicide (Mullen's never seen an autopsy before, so Jersey thinks it's a good idea) but as soon as Shepard starts to make a incision, the woman wakes up screaming!  Turns out she was only an attempted suicide and the EMTs are dumbasses.  Her name is Dana (Denise Young) and she takes an instant liking to Mullen and seems to immediately forget all about her suicidal thoughts that brought her to the morgue in the first place.  Her weird arrival seems to indicate that later she might become important to the story, but no, that doesn't happen.
Upstairs, Alley attempts to take a reading off of that lock of hair and at first she "sees" the past, as a Chinese couple (Mr. Chen's ancestors?) make some sort of black magic deal to return life to their recently deceased child.  Alley's vision then flashes to the basement of the morgue, as the three deceased kids start to move around in their body bags, with all the lab technicians, Lt. Jersey, and everybody else in the adjacent room.  Alley snaps out of her psychic trance and runs to warn them of what's going on, stealing the elevator key from Miss Poopinplatz and making a dash for the elevator with Floofsoms in hot pursuit.  The pair of them go down to the basement and Poopinplatz soon follows.

Once down there, Alley discovers Jersey, Mullen, Dana, and Shepard all holed up in one of the offices, but not before she finds everyone else slaughtered and the zombie children demons feasting greedily on their innards!  The zombie kids are slimy and decomposed looking and they move around with a jittering quality, upping the creep factor considerably.  To make matters worse, one of them carries around a doll.
Jesus!  That shit is freaky!  It's at this point the movie goes full on bonkers-crazy, as the survivors must arm themselves (most notably with a machine gun found in the evidence room at the coroners office[?]) and battle these creepy demon kid zombies and fight their way out of the basement.  They quickly find that they can kill the zombies by destroying their hearts, which is a nice change of pace for a zombie(ish) movie, and turns out to be not that difficult.  One of them is killed by a forklift, which I found hysterical, but this begs the question, if it was so easy to kill them, why was Mr. Chen and his ancestors keeping them alive for centuries?
Miss Poopinplatz has a good chase scene with one of the little buggers, ending with her pushing a shelf full of chemicals over on the thing.  In its death throes, the little bastard shoves a piece of its rotting scalp into Diller's open mouth.  It's pretty gross and obviously she gets pretty ill.  You might think that this would turn her into one of the freaky little zombie things, but no, it doesn't.  Instead she eventually turns into a BIG bug-eyed Phyllis Diller monster, which is both goofily-amazing and a little terrifying.
It's quite the impressive special effect and at one point in the scene it lets out a big Phyllis-Diller-laugh, which is crazy.  Phyllis Monster doesn't stick around long though, but her exit makes way for the monster pièce de résistance, which might be considered a SPOILER but it's hard not to talk about it when it's all over the posters and video box art and yeah, Floofsoms eats some zombie goo and becomes a giant poodle monster and attacks our remaining survivors.  It's crazy.
Dana has the inappropriate reaction of laughing when she see Floofsoms, which seems very much appropriate in context of watching the movie, but probably isn't when faced with a giant dog monster.

These scenes alone make this movie worth watching, but luckily there's enough other weird stuff to keep you interested while waiting for Floofsoms to hulk out.  The movie's biggest problem is that it is heavy on overly written exposition scenes, like the over-explaining of Alley's psychic powers and history or the over-long tender moments between Mullen and Dana.  There's lots of talking between the (admittedly limited) action, which is obviously just filler and seems to do little more than bring up loose threads for the narrative to play with and then abandon.

For example:

*Alley's psychic powers don't come into play in the second half of the movie (nor does her dead daughter) and it seems like a rather moot point for her to have them at all.
*The entire Chinese mysticism stuff that is brought up is never mentioned again.
*Why have Mr. Chen and his ancestors kept these apparently easily killable zombie around for all this time?  AND Mr.Chen's body shows up at the morgue late in the movie, but NOTHING happens with it, it's not relevant at all.
*In regards to there being three zombies kids (Alley only sees one kid in her flashback to ancient China), at one point they talk about "one becomes two" or somesuch, but nothing comes of it and there is no further explanation.  Which brings me to:
*Why does ingesting zombie flesh/goo turn them into GIANT monsters and not, you know, little slimy ones?
*As I said, Dana the attempted suicide is a strange way to introduce a love interest to the movie.  I kept waiting for her to get zombified or something, but no.  Nothing.
*Shepard is scratched or bitten on the leg and you wait for him to turn into a zombie, but he doesn't.
*I really don't know why there is an evidence room at the coroners office, let alone why it's stocked with a fully loaded machine gun and pipe bombs.
*Oh, and for no discernible reason, the movie is set during Thanksgiving.
Despite the awesomeness of The Boneyard's monsters, they really don't do that much.  The kills are pretty unspectacular, really.  The initial attack the zombie kids make on the lab is done off-screen, and all you see is their gut-munching aftermath (it's still effectively creepy).  The Phyllis Monster, while quite an achievement, really just throws a couple people around into walls and such.  The Poodle Monster does even less, but goddamned if they don't make the ridiculous thing look cool.
Director James Cummins had a career in special effects and this was his directorial debut (he also wrote the screenplay).  He had previously done special effects work on Jaws 3D (1983), Enemy Mine (1985), House (1986), Slumber Party Massacre II (1987), and DeepStar Six (1989).  I'm sure he intended The Boneyard to be his calling card, but it seems as if Hollywood wasn't biting at giant poodle monster movies.  Honestly, the movie is a little flat, as far as the direction, and the story swings wildly between seriousness and camp, not to mention the scenes of expository dialogue that are, well, not very good.  Cummins did however conceive of the design for the monsters, so kudos for that.
This was a fairly cheap movie (isolating the action to a confined area and having a limited cast helped keep production costs down), with the majority of the money they had going towards the special effects.  The execution of the practical effects was accomplished by a team of guys, most of whom have gone on to work on big Hollywood projects in varying degrees.  Key make-up artist John R. Bayless now works on Showtime's Homeland as a department head and special effects coordinator Ray Bivens worked on Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth and Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice (both, 1992) and has since graduated to much more hellish work like Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009) and Furry Vengeance (2010).
As I mentioned, Alley Oates makes for an atypical female lead character in a movie.  Her demeanor isn't very appealing and usually a woman of her physicality would be relegated to a supporting role as a trucker or lunch-lady or something.  Odd choice as it might be, Deborah Rose's casting makes the movie that much more interesting.  This would be Rose's final film of her short career.  She had single-episode bit parts on TV shows like The Golden Girls and The Wonder Years and also starred in Ski Patrol (1990) as Inspector Crabitz.
Ed Nelson was the very definition of a working actor, with a career that spanned 6 decades, working in both film and television.  His most famous role is that of Dr. Michael Rossi on 60s soap drama Peyton Place.  Fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 might recognize Ed Nelson as Dave in Night of the Blood Beast (Season 7) and the elusive Robert Denby from Riding with Death (Season 9).  He also had small parts in Teenage Cave Man (Season 3) and Superdome (KTMA).  Nelson also starred in Roger Corman's Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) and A Bucket of Blood (1959) and was later in sequels like Airport 1975 (1974) and Police Academy 3: Back in Training (1986).
James Eustermann and Denise Young both didn't really have careers outside of this movie, which is for the best probably, as they're both not that good, which is a shame as the movie spends quite a bit of time with their characters.
Norman Fell is almost unrecognizable as Shepard the coroner.  He doesn't do anything funny, not really, and he's got the big mustache and ponytail.....I'd go out on a limb and say that this is his most atypical role ever.  Norman Fell of course was Mr. Roper on Three's Company and at this point in his career he was doing cheap schlock like Transylvania 6-5000 (1985) and C.H.U.D. II: Bud the Chud (1989).  He had earlier career highlight that included supporting roles in The Killers (1964), Bullit (1968), and Charley Varrick (1973).

Phyllis Diller is of course Phyllis Diller.  Here's a clip of her telling jokes, looking crazy.

Final Thought:  The Boneyard is more weird than anything and has a wildly inconsistent tone and a lot of it doesn't make any sense, but if there is a better giant poodle monster movie out there, I've yet to see it.
Warning about this trailer:  it is extremely SPOILER heavy, giving away the entire movie, ending and all.  It's basically a three minute version of the movie.  You've been warned.

The Boneyard was released to home video with two different covers, the yellow one playing up the comedy aspects, and the black cover selling it as a straight horror movie.

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