Monday, September 4, 2017

"A Bunch of Fantasies Going on Only in Your Head" - The Boogeyman (1980)

A film that has gone in and out of fashion over the years is 1980's The Boogeyman, directed by Ulli Lommel, a former actor who collaborated many times with Rainer Werner Fassbinder and a friend of Andy Warhol's. Mr. Lommel's artistic background was put to fine use in The Boogeyman, one of the first slasher films with no slasher.

While the film has both supporters and critics, it is clear that the negative critics are quite unfair to the film. When The Boogeyman was released in 1980, reviewer Gary Arnold wrote somewhat confusingly in the Washington Post, "It's difficult to judge whether the payoffs would be enhanced by a more plausible or clever pretext. Probably not. The shocks might even be curiously diluted by a little preliminary sophistication." On IMDB, reviewer ModKuraika says the film has a "dismal tone, terrible effects (for that time), cheesy acting. One of the worst films I have ever witnessed and never wish to view again." Also on IMDB, tomgillespie2002 calls the film "daft" and "instantly forgettable."

As always, I must dispel the cloud of negative perceptions about this film by looking at its positive qualities in detail.

Forgive this interruption, but new facts have come to light in my interdimensional researches. As an aside in my last review, I explained my mission of recovering disappearing films from my Universe-Prime that were somehow transmitted into your Universe-X--the same films that I review here on Senseless Cinema. I now have proof that I am being targeted by the sinister agents from my universe who are perpetrating this horrible crime of destroying all traces of certain films. These agents are tracing online views of these films in an attempt to find me--to what purpose, I do now know, but I am certain it is nefarious and potentially harmful.

My most recent discovery, prompted by my review of Cathy's Curse (which is clearly from a heretofore undiscovered universe), is that these agents must be hijacking films from more than just my universe and dumping them into yours. I feel I am getting closer to discovering the identity of these agents, though I have no proof yet, and I harbor some hope that they are not who I believe they might be. I will update you further when I can.

I now return you to your regularly scheduled review of Ulli Lommel's classic The Boogeyman...

In a picturesque rural house sometime in the past, a woman seduces a T-shirted man who carries a bottle of liquor to the strains of a jazzy saxophone. Like many cinematic seductions, this one is being observed by two young children--a boy and a girl--standing outside and looking in through the living room window.

As is typical of women in this unspecified era, the woman pulls her stocking over her lover's face so he looks like a department store mannequin.

When the woman sees the children peering through the window, the saxophone tune stops. The stocking-faced man lumbers across the room toward the door to punish the children.

Apparently having read all the trendy parenting books, the man ties the squirming boy to his bed.

After watching her brother get tied up, the little girl quickly goes to the kitchen, gets a butcher knife, frees the boy, then gives him the knife. We watch as the boy graphically stabs the man as he lies in bed with the woman. The murder is seen in the reflection of a large mirror on the wall.

Perhaps most surprisingly of all, the man is still wearing the stocking on his head.

The film then cuts to director Ulli Lommel's celebrated minute-long pan across a cemetery to the steeple of a church. Sunday service is in session, and we are in the present day, 1980. After the service, Lacey, the girl from the prologue who witnessed her brother committing murder, confesses to both the priest and the audience that she cannot forget that night long ago.

Lacey and her brother Willy live on a farm with their aunt and uncle, as well as her husband and their young child Kevin. Willy has not spoken since the fateful murder night. Other than Willy's muteness, they appear to have a good life in what appears to be the Amityville Farmhouse.


Tensions rise at a family dinner that includes Lacey's husband Jake--a policeman--and the priest. Jake complains about a new 911 number that his department has installed, which will push more emergencies to them instead of the state police.

But the real tension begins when Lacey reads a letter from her mother, who is in poor health in Georgia and who wants to see Lacey and Willy  "We can't feel guilty for what happened 20 years ago," Lacey tells Willy, though it is questionable whether the legal system would concur.

Jake continues complaining about his job. "You know Clem down at the HoJo's. Well, there we were again. A couple tourists came in. Clem was really acting up. So off to the office we went."

As Jake complains, Lacey watches her aunt carve a small chicken with a large, reflective knife. The knife appears almost to hypnotize the young woman.

We do not find out what happened to Clem down at the HoJo's.

After dark, when everyone is asleep, Willy goes downstairs to retrieve the knife and his mother's letter. He hides the knife in his desk drawer as part of his collection. Then he takes matches from his drawer and burns the letter. (It appears Willy is starting his own little Museum of Knives and Fire.)

It is to director Lommel's credit that he portrays Lacey and Willy as people with psychological complexity. Lacey, for example, gets a concerned, faraway look in her eyes when she sees knives and mirrors; she also has nightmares in which her brother ties her to a bed and stabs her. Furthermore, in a stroke of subtle character development, we see that not only does Willy tend his collection of knives and matches, but he also keeps a snake and a tarantula as a pet, and he has dead mammal, or perhaps alien creature, heads mounted on his wall.

Lacey confesses to her husband that she doesn't want to see her mother. "All right," says Jake. "Let's get rid of these ghosts once and for all. I think you should see your mother."

Jake decides they will both see Lacey's mother and visit the childhood murder house.

The couple decides to start therapy, which allows the film to indulge in an appearance by the great John Carradine as their therapist.

Lacey, perhaps showing questionable judgment, allows Mr. Carradine to hypnotize her. She relates the story of "that night" 20 years ago. We see it play out again before our eyes, as Mr. Lommel displays his formidable skill in cutting flashbacks we have already seen into the main narrative.

What happens next is frightening. Lacey screws up her face in pain and a gravelly voice--nearly as gravelly as Mr. Carradine's--comes out of her mouth. "Help me! I'm going to get you!" Then she roars not unlike a tiger.

Mr. Carradine is slightly curious about her apparent demonic possession. He tells Jake that they must go back to the house so Lacey will remember it the way it is now, not the way it was 20 years ago.

While Lacey and Jake drive to Virginia to find the murder house, Willy attempts to fend off a seduction by their neighbor Katie.

When Katie's advances get too forward, Willy strangles her, lifting her off the ground. After he catches sight of himself in a mirror, he lets her go. "You're crazy!" she says, running away.

(Oddly, we never see Katie again, so apparently she did not think of pressing charges against Willy.)

Showing himself to be rational, Willy uses black paint to cover all the mirrors in the Amityville Farmhouse. His aunt catches him and asks, "Why are you painting all the mirrors?"

Lacey and Jake find the murder house, which has a For Sale sign in the front yard. On the front porch, Jake performs a complex twisting routine to ring the doorbell. The door is answered by a teenage girl eating an apple. She says her parents are away for the weekend, but her sister and little brother are in the house. Lacey and Jake explore the old place, which has been updated a little, and now has a telephone in the middle of the staircase.

When they reach the upstairs bathroom, the little brother rips open the shower curtain and yells, "Boogeyman!"

The little boy entices Lacey to follow him to the master bedroom. She glances at the mirror, which must be one of those expensive mirrors that retains traumatic images, because she sees the man her brother murdered 20 years earlier lying on the bed.

The man rises and moves toward Lacey, so naturally she smashes the mirror with a chair. This action is looked upon as out of the ordinary by the teenager watching the house.

Jake bends down and starts cleaning up the broken shards of mirror. Lacey asks him what he is doing. "Picking up the pieces of the mirror," he says in something of a daze.

Lacey and Jake have no choice but to take the mirror frame and the shards, now in a paper bag, back to the farm with them.

On the drive home, Jake is angry that Lacey is upset. "All of this is nothing more than a bunch of fantasies going on only in your head," he says.

The first thing Jake does back at the farmhouse is to reassemble the smashed mirror and hang it in the kitchen. But one shard is missing.

Instead of more flashbacks to the murder night, the film cuts back to the murder house in the present day. We see the missing mirror shard on the floor in the murder house, glowing orange, and emitting the pulsing sound of a heartbeat.

We find out a pair of "barber scissors" is missing. Young Timmy--the boy fond of jumping out of showers to yell, "Boogeyman!"--relaxes in a chair watching a Western on TV. And the camera takes on the point of view of the pulsing mirror shard as it moves through the old house and makes its way behind the shower curtain.

Fortunately for the shard of mirror, the teenage girl walks into the bathroom, finds her "barber scissors," and starts cutting her hair.

The film's most shocking sequence--possibly the most celebrated sequence in Mr. Lommel's filmography--occurs next. The mirror shard psychically forces the girl to stab herself in the throat with her scissors.

To make matters worse, Timmy climbs up the outside of the house, presumably to scare his sister. He sticks his head into the open bathroom window and shouts, "Boogeyman!"

Then the window closes on his neck, crushing him.

Finally, the last sibling, after folding towels for several minutes, finds the shard and picks it up. It forces her to find her brother and sister dead in the bathroom. Then it kills her by opening the medicine cabinet, tapping her lightly on the forehead and causing her to fall down, dead.

Back at the Amityville Farmhouse, Willy and Lacey are nearly punctured by a flying pitchfork activated by tiny mirror shards from the paper bag, which also glow orange and pulse with a loud heartbeat sound.

The mirror's killing spree continues in a manner some might consider implausible. A shard gets stuck to the bottom of Lacey's son Kevin's shoe, and while Lacey and Kevin fish on a pier, the glint from the mirror causes a knife on the other side of the river to rise out of a box and stab a young man in the neck.

Of course, Mr. Lommel's genius does not allow him to stop with this single killing. When the young man's girlfriend comes to investigate, the mirror telekinetically pushes a car door shut, shoving her into her boyfriend and impaling her on the knife as well.

When the mirror shard causes Jake to bleed and shake, everyone is suddenly convinced that Lacey is correct and something supernatural is going on. They immediately consult both the priest and psychiatrist John Carradine.

The climax begins when the priest, after rushing to the farmhouse, touches the mirror. Red lights fill the house.

In the barn, Lacey's uncle is pitchforked to a wall and her aunt is found dead in a closet.

Lacey herself, tragically, has a shard of mirror where her right eye should be.

In the terrifying climax, several people bleed profusely, victims of the mirror and the ghost or demon that inhabits it. The finale involves Willy speaking his first words in 20 years and a desperate attempt to throw the cursed mirror down a well.

It also involves Lacey's young son Kevin hiding in a lazy Susan in the kitchen.

In the coda, we find that both Lacey and Willy have survived the ordeal. Additionally, Willy is now quite talkative, and he uses his newfound powers of speech to cajole his sister about feeling guilty for the deaths of their aunt and uncle. They walk off into the future, failing to notice the last shard of the mirror lying on the grass.

Although this film only has a few examples of flashbacks we have already seen, Mr. Lommel would go on to make Boogeyman II (1983), now known as Revenge of the Boogeyman, which would take the artistic tool of padding-by-flashback to previously unrealized heights. The trend would continue with Return of the Boogeyman (1994), which also incorporated much footage from the original 1980 film, though Mr. Lommel was not credited as director of this third film, only as co-producer. In any case, Mr. Lommel's nascent ability to repeat footage the audience has already seen was clearly in its developmental stage in The Boogeyman, soon to burst into full artistic fruition.

Mr. Lommel's work of art would not be so effective without his collaborators, primarily his then-wife and co-writer Suzanna Love, reportedly a Dupont heiress who funded Mr. Lommel's films, and her brother Nicholas Love. The sister and brother play characters who are sister and brother, and only the most critical viewer could argue that they do not play convincing siblings.

The Boogeyman is not given enough credit as an early slasher film without a slasher. Later films, particularly the Final Destination series, would be praised for such an innovation, but The Boogeyman, despite its title implying a stalking psychopath or supernatural killer, was perhaps the first such film. Due to Mr. Lommel's brilliant artistic vision, the film is even able to show multiple POV shots from the killer's perspective, even though there is no killer, only the evil projections of a shattered mirror.

Not only do we in the audience see the point of view of the telekinetic mirror shard, the characters in the film also detect its presence as they are being stalked (and I use the word "presence" incorrectly, as the shards are in fact not present). As the teenagers on the side of the river are stalked by the glinting reflection of light off the mirror, they hear the heartbeat and deep breathing the shard produces. Brilliant! Such a feat of directorial prowess has rarely been achieved in the many years since The Boogeyman, and I dare say it is hardly likely it will be achieved in the future.