The Boogey Man (1980)
Remember that Seinfeld episode where George, adorably pathetic as always, went to see a movie he’d already seen just so he could shout out the zinger “That’s gotta hurt!” following an explosion? I’m embarrassed to admit that although I didn’t attend a movie twice just so I could have the satisfaction of inappropriately yelling a one-liner, I’ll cop to the sad fact that I did experience some spur-of-the-moment inspiration and attempted something similar. It was at a screening of Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm 2 and a particularly wild moment involving the ball had just occurred. I’d been mentally preparing myself for about five minutes, then I let it loose. “BOOGEY MAN!” I yelled. Maybe, and I’m being charitable here, maybe one person in the auditorium chuckled. That’s it. Fortunately, I don’t think anyone quite knew where the comment came from, so I just sunk down in my chair and feigned ignorance. I probably even did a cursory look-around, as if saying “What asshole said that?” It’s not entirely my fault. I had attended a screening of Ulli Lommel’s eerily simple The Boogey Man and that little coffee ice cream-eating shithead Timmy’s utterance of the film’s title got a huge response. I guess I’ll never be as cool as Timmy. That’ll always be the dream. Still, the fact remains that Lommel’s low-budget, supernatural tale had a way of getting under the skin.
As an essential part of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s ensemble both on and off-screen, German-born Lommel was used to working fast and on meager budgets. His second film as a director was the darkly comic The Tenderness of Wolves, an exploration of the last few years of twisted serial killer/cannibal Fritz Haarmann. This film got him noticed and soon he’d head west in search of fame and fortune. He’d already been working in the states for a few years, having directed Cocaine Cowboys and Blank Generation already, leading to mixed results. The Boogey Man would be his breakthrough, grossing an estimated 25 million dollars on a miniscule $300,000 budget. It’s been criticized as being derivative of Halloween, The Exorcist, and The Amityville Horror and those criticisms are justified. But Lommel’s vision, a combination of autobiography, folklore, and fantastical elements set in the most mundane of settings results in a film with limited means that’s almost elegant in its uncomplicated approach to a very disturbing story.
The Boogey Man was written by Lommel, David Hershel, and Suzanna Love, a DuPont heiress married to Lommel and who would both co-write, star in, and occasionally finance (thanks to her controversial family’s deep pockets, no doubt) many of her husband’s films throughout the 80’s and early 90’s. Films written and directed by foreign-born filmmakers sometimes have a tendency to contain wonky, nonsensical dialogue that almost sounds American, but not quite. In this case, likely thanks to the presence of Hershel and Love, the film has a naturalistic quality that lends itself well to its rural farm setting. It could’ve been a lot worse. For every Lars Von Trier or Werner Herzog, there’s also a Claudio Fragasso or Tommy Wiseau. Hell, I worked with a Russian filmmaker whose script almost sounded right, but there was just something off about it.
Economy is a necessity when attempting to spin an all-encompassing tale such as this. The score is absolutely aping both Carpenter’s Halloween and Mike Oldfield’s Exorcist theme, but composer Tim Krog admirably makes it his own. Boogey Man has stretches where nothing but heavy breathing is heard on the soundtrack, but in general, the film wouldn’t be nearly as effective without Krog’s chilling and creepy score. The camera dollies along and settles upon a quaint home, where we instantly understand that we’ve gone way back in time due to the 40’s style music. A tipsy woman (Gillian Gordon) is entertaining/seducing her lover (Howard Grant, Blank Generation) while her two children, Willy and Lacey, spy on them from outside. This lady’s got a kinky imagination since she places one of her panty hose over his face. She doesn’t get a chance to paint his nipples with lipstick since she notices her kids eavesdropping. Instead of just simply yelling at them, things get dark real fast.
While the little girl simply gets sent to bed, Willy is shockingly gagged and bound to his bed while his mother swigs from a bottle and looks on, indifferent. Later that night, Lacey retrieves a huge knife and frees Willy from his bondage. He takes the knife and sneaks into his mother’s room, where he repeatedly stabs her lover, an act reflected in the huge mirror on the wall. Honestly, it serves them right. The sadism on display is quite shocking, especially since it involves children.
Many years pass. Willy no longer speaks, Lacey (Suzanna Love) is married and has a son, and both are estranged from their mother. Lacey is fairly well-adjusted, but she’s still haunted by the events of her childhood. Local priest Father Reilly (Llewelyn Thomas) advises her that “all we can do is pray.” Yeah, thanks dumbass. Willy (Nicholas Love, The Dead Pool and Suzanna’s real-life brother) is a good worker and a strapping lad, but he’s got a few peculiarities, like hoarding knives. You’d think someone would notice. At least he doesn’t hurt animals. In fact, he’s got quite a few in his room and the fact that he doesn’t harm them at least indicates that he’s not a serial killer. A letter arrives from their mother which drudges up the painful memories of the past. A slumming John Carradine (no offense towards the great actor, but wasn’t he always at this point?), playing a psychiatrist, advises Lacey’s husband Jake (Ron James) to take Lacey back to her childhood home to essentially shock her into sanity. Of course, this is after your standard movie-hypnosis moment where Lacey starts speaking in a little gremlin voice.
The recurring motif of mirrors is in full effect during this session, with Carradine’s office containing several floor-to-ceiling jobs. You’d think he’d be a little more sensitive to the needs of probable crazy people, but those mirrors really tie the room together, man.
An intense scene goes down as the trampy Katy (documentary filmmaker Catherine Tambini) comes onto an increasingly agitated Willy in the barn. Apparently, the smell of horse shit makes her horny. He uses his brute strength to strangle her and nearly kills her before glancing at his face in the mirror. She runs off and he ends up blacking out every mirror in the house. Reflective images can be a major nuisance on a film set. I myself once shot an interview in which I essentially had to conduct it laying on the ground lest I risk being seen on-camera. Cinematographers Jochen Breitenstein and David Sperling (who would go on to lens the legendary Street Trash) impressively remain unobtrusive and invisible as mirrors continue to haunt the tortured siblings.
At Lacey’s old house, they encounter a trio of kids, whose parents are selling the it. One of them is the infamous Timmy (David Swim), whose iconic shrieking of “Boogey Man” is accompanied by an obnoxious jump scare. Little prick. He’d better knock that off or else he’ll probably end up getting crushed by a window. That's an oddly specific threat, but I don’t know. It just sounds right. In her mother’s old bedroom, the mirror is still there and Lacey hallucinates (?) her mother’s lover, still wearing the panty hose over his head, getting up off the bed. She smashes it to smithereens, which causes the current residents to be relatively non-plussed despite the fact that this lady might just be certifiable. Jake, getting pretty frustrated with his wife’s wacky antics, decides to take the frame and shards back to the farm. One piece is left behind and it suddenly begins to glow red in a simple, but neat effect.
In one of the film’s most jarring and brilliant touches, Lommel twists the familiar ‘subjective camera’ cliché by using a roving, hand held camera, no music, and just a steady, heavy breathing. It’s clear something is stalking the kids in this house, but we don’t know what. Jane Pratt, future Sassy magazine founder, suddenly finds herself unable to control a pair of scissors. A bit of gratuitous nudity is followed by a bloody closeup of the scissors plunging into her neck and Timmy hilariously dies when he shouts “Boogey Man!” and the window crushes his neck. Although killing children in a film is rarely funny, the timing of the line and his sudden death acts as a fabulous punchline. Lucinda Ziesing finds the bloody piece of glass and manages to drop it into the sink, where it bursts into flames as the medicine cabinet door smacks her in the face. My only general gripe with this film is that although the film is appreciably brief, wasting no time with a runtime of well under 90 minutes, characters are introduced and quickly discarded. Nothing is ever done with Lacey and Willy’s mother. Ditto these kids. Presuming the last girl survived with nothing more than a konk on the noggin, you’d think she’d maybe want to figure out what the hell happened, but some characters merely act as random victims to up the body count.
Lommel has stated in interviews that staging supernatural occurrences in a modern, familiar setting enhances the power of the unexplained phenomena. As Jake meticulously (and impossibly) puts nearly the entire mirror back together, Lacey comments that when someone “breaks a mirror, that frees everything it’s seen.” It’s a frightening idea that a real-life horror could be absorbed into a mirror and then manifest itself as a malevolent force. Though low-fi, the menace of floating objects is relatively well-done, aided in no small part by more lens flare than you can shake a J.J. Abrams at. Whenever the glass shards refract light, something weird happens, including a pitchfork very nearly impaling Willy in the barn.
Jake and Lacey’s son, who later sports a sweet Amazing Spider-Man shirt, gets a piece of the mirror stuck to his shoe. While fishing, the light reflects all the way across the lake, where we find more fresh meat. Two absolute asshole teens are being total douchebags to their dates. One is ordering his girlfriend to finish cooking some hot dogs and then grab him another beer. The other wants to serve his lady friend a different kind of hot dog by getting a blow job in a dilapidated house. It’s unclear whether the mirror spirit is a prude or if the house is just falling apart, but a board falls over, ruining the mood and prompting her to skip what Maria De Medeiros once referred to as “oral pleasure.” The unsettling breathing returns along with an eerily silent soundtrack, and the dude with the blue balls gets stabbed through the back of his neck, the knife protruding out of his mouth. In an amusingly sick twist, his gal pal leans into the car, the spirit forces the door to smack her forward, and she gets the kiss of death by being impaled with the knife sticking through the guy’s mouth. It’s a creative bit of murder.
Jake has been a bit of a shithead. Though a nice guy, he basically put his foot down and told Lacey in no uncertain terms, “No more getting into these fantasies.” He’s the type of guy who’d regard mental health as one of those bullshit, ‘science” things that only Jesus can heal. Yeesh. It's therefore satisfying when he attempts to put a glass shard back into the frame and he can feel the evil presence. Carradine returns and we get a decent scene in which he and Jake hash out what exactly is going on. Initially, they come to the conclusion that this “thing” is just a manifestation of Lacey’s guilt due to her decision to use a knife to free her brother, prompting him to use it to commit murder. Now, they consider the possibility of “evil as a tangible force.”
Things go downhill very quickly as a shard flies into Lacey’s face and she basically becomes the evil spirit; who loves to cook, by the way. Her aunt and uncle are killed, with the uncle getting a particularly brutal death by being impaled on the ceiling with the pitchfork. Father Reilly shows up and tries a little “the power of Christ compels you” bullshit while (sort-of) getting his face melted. In an impressively colorful finale, Lacey floats while debris flies about the room. Willy finds his voice and he and Jake cover the mirror (that’s all they had to do?) and toss it into the well, where it promptly bursts into flames. It’s never explained why the mirror reacts to water in this way, but at least it was foreshadowed. Later, at the gravesite of their aunt and uncle, the last mirror shard falls off the kid’s shoe and the trio head off while the glass begins to glow red.
Lommel was convinced by Paramount Pictures to quickly shoot a sequel, resulting in a slapdash production reminiscent of the sequel to Silent Night, Deadly Night, in which a huge amount of the film’s running time consists of footage from the original film. The sequel wouldn’t be released until 1983. The bare bones, gritty style of The Boogeyman, aided by an imitation but undeniably strong soundtrack, provide a surprisingly watchable and compelling experience. The acting is acceptable, nothing special, and the minimalistic effects are successful in amplifying the paranormal occurrences. It’s a humble horror film that works by turning its shortcomings into strengths.