Written and Directed by: James Cummins
Starring: Ed Nelson, Deborah Rose, Norman Fell, and Phyllis Diller
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Dare to enter. Try to leave.
Filmmaker James Cummins spent the 80s toiling behind the scenes, often doing uncredited grunt work at the behest of effects masters like Stan Winston, Rob Bottin, and Chris Walas. His career wound through some noteworthy productionsóThe Exterminator, Dead and Buried, Cat People, The Thing, Jaws IIIóbefore Cummins decided to get behind a camera himself for The Boneyard, a movie that feels like itís trying to pump all of the 80s excess out of its system as the calendar rolled into a new decade. The Boneyard has a little bit of everything: a psychic detective, dead kids, a haunted mortuary, zombies, an inordinate amount of explosions, a poodle, and Phyllis Diller. I donít think it takes a thorough scientific investigation to confirm that this is the only way to experience this very specific and peculiar combination of elements. Iím not sure thereís much to recommend outside of this combination, either: for a movie with so much going on, The Boneyard doesnít get very far past its inherently wacky intrigue.
Deborah Rose is Alley Oates, a burned-out psychic who works with the local police force to solve murder cases. At least she used to before she decided the horrors were too much to endure and quit her post, leaving her a depressed husk of herself. When her old partner Jersey (Ed Nelson) comes knocking with a new, especially grisly case, she wants nothing of it, at least until she starts thumbing through a scrapbook of old case files (a morbid habit, if weíre being honest) and experiences some psychic visions. Before she knows it, sheís down at the town mortuary looking into a bizarre case where the jointís owner has murdered three kids. In his police interview, he insists they arenít children, though: theyíre a trio of demonic spirits who need to feed on flesh to remain satiated. With their longtime caretaker now behind bars, the demons are now free to wreak havoc on the place.
The Boneyard follows a formula that would have been familiar to contemporary audiences, and itís even more so now. Itís yet another movie where demons run amok on a location and torment the people stuck with them. Joe Bob Briggs labelled it the ďspan in a cabinĒ genre, but movies like Night of the Demons and The Boneyard prove that you can stage just mayhem just about anywhere, be it an abandoned mansion or a mortuary. And of course the latter is arguably the most natural place to do so, what with all the dead bodies just lounging around, waiting to reanimate and raise hell. The Boneyard is structurally sound, all things considered, especially since this sort of thing became a video store staple by the end of the 80s.
While it doesnít exactly crumble under the weight of all its nonsense, it doesnít exactly thrive on it either. Cumminsís direction is mostly pedestrian and ambles through the motions of corralling an admittedly lively group together before unleashing hell on them. The dreary, ominous morgue does a lot of the legwork in establishing the atmosphere, while the foreboding interview with the morgueís owner does a nice job of tapping into a sinister vibe that doesnít quite endure. Likewise, the fleeting shots of the dead kids themselves dip into a distastefulness that thankfully doesnít come to define the film, mostly because The Boneyard is silly as fuck once itís properly riled up. Dillerís presenceóplaying mortuary supervisor Mrs. Poopinplatzósignals as much early on, and more offbeat bits trickle in, like the oddball mortuary attendants (highlighted by ringleader Norman Fell) and a supposed suicide victim (Denise Young) who rises from the slab because her attempt wasnít successful after all. Itís a double-edged sword for her: on the one hand, she regains consciousness in the midst of a demonic infestation. On the other, she strikes up a romance with one of the detectives during the course of the evening.
But itís most obvious that The Boneyard is a hoot once the demons finally emerge and start ripping shit up. Realized by a combination of exceedingly rubber puppetry and actors in suits, the design for these feral fiends takes a cue from Sam Raimiís deadites, only itís applied to childlike creatures with weird, receding hairlines. One glimpse of them is enough to convince you that itís alright to laugh at The Boneyard. Hell, itís downright encouraged as the demented trio mangles and chows down on everything in its path. The gore theatrics are goopy enough, but itís the escalating lunacy gripping the proceedings thatís really noteworthy here. The rambunctious climax finds Cummins rustling The Boneyard from its slumber and squeezing some fairly spirited nonsense out of it once the demons begin infecting and reanimating victims. Not only do the dwindling survivors have to contend with the demon kids, but theyíre also stuck with a bug-eyed Phillis Diller muppet and her zombie dog. By the time the oversized poodle engorges into the frame, thereís no doubt that The Boneyard is meant to be a riot.
Whether it actually is one is debatable. Again, its climax is pretty rollicking stuff, made all the more absurd by its insistence on transforming Deborah Rose into an action hero. Rose spends most of the movie in a sort of depressed daze, mumbling her lines and zoning out for her psychic visions (one of which is coaxed from caressing one of the demonís hair follicles, which unlocks a flashback to an occult ritual, in case youíre wondering just how silly The Boneyard gets). But apparently nobody told Rose that: sheís the only one really playing things deadly serious here, so itís all the more hilarious when sheís the one pulling a John McClane at the end, impossibly squeezing herself into and out of tight spaces as she lobs explosives at the demons. Itís one of the most fascinating instances of a sluggish performance combining with an unlikely character arc that youíre ever likely to see.
The Boneyard makes you dig around for interesting stuff like that. You can occasionally catch a glimmer of the splattery romp Cummins must have envisioned for it, but these flourishes are fleeting and leave you with the feeling that everything didnít quite come together. Evidently, it shipped out to video stores bearing two boxes, one for the comedy section and the other for the horror section, which speaks to the divided nature of the film. What do you call a comedy that isnít all that funny or a horror movie thatís too silly to be horrific? Itís a conundrum weíve faced plenty of times before, but how often has it involved Phillis Diller turning into an undead muppet? Only once, and you can only find it in The Boneyard. Enter if you dare.
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