Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Boogens (1981) dir. James L. Conway

Logline: A double date of turtley doom in the snowy seclusion of Utah! A pair of miners re-opening a long-abandoned mine invite their lady friends up for a weekend of beer, bed-tussling, and chocolate cake, but little do they know their mining activities has unleashed a long-buried, awfully hungry evil...

It's rare that one feels the compulsion to call a film "affable," but that is precisely what The Boogens is. It's one of those uncommon breed of films with an environment and characters that feel lived-in and genuinely human-- a film one wouldn't mind stepping inside of to shoot a few games of pool with, if it weren't for those bothersome mine-dwelling, tentacled turtle beasts always attacking. The Boogens has the distinction of creating four of the most likeable protagonists in horror film history, sticking them into a rubber monster movie, and still somehow pulling it off. While one would have a tough time calling it an adventurous or ingenious film, its commendations lie in the pitch-perfect execution of its production's every aspect: characters, performances, setting, suspense, humor, practical effects, sound design, score, cinematography; it's all handled by its filmmakers with a deft touch and a bounty of care that, frankly, one stumbles across in micro-budget creature features far too infrequently. The wintry faded glory of the once-prosperous mining town gives the film a suitably gloomy and isolated location in which to stage its moments of suspense. And stage them it does: besides the expert sequences placing our human pals in danger, we even feel dread when the foursome's irritating/adorable pooch, Tiger, is repeatedly menaced by those awful Boogens. A good deal of this suspense is generated by the filmmakers' decision to keep the titular beasts off-screen for most of the duration-- while this might stem more from embarrassment over the admittedly shoddy (yet still oddly effective) creature design, one might also choose to believe it's because they knew what they were doing. What we don't see is always built up to something much worse in our minds, and having the brutal and powerful disembodied tentacle attacks entice our imaginations before we're formally introduced to the brutes is a smart move. The eventual reveal of their somewhat inherently ridiculous mutated snapping turtle features winds up being a good deal more palatable when gradual, as opposed to how it might be if we'd been shown the whole hog from the first frame on. It also helps that (barring the easy charm and levity of the first half) The Boogens takes the horror of its rubber beasts entirely seriously-- in consideration of the 1980s' deluge of Gremlins, Ghoulies, Critters, and Munchies, it's not unwelcome to find one band of creatures worth their weight in ferocity, if not dread.

The film is an honest favorite, one I'd be pleased to snuggle up to on a winter's night, and it's also the first previously-seen film I've decided to cover here on the blog. The reason for this obvious betrayal of my usual mission is that after years of unavailability on physical media (its last commercial release was on VHS in the '90s) The Boogens is about to be released on blu-ray from Olive Films. In contrast to those years of full-framed, low-resolution viewings courtesy of VHS bootlegs and the infrequent TCM airing, Olive's high definition release is nothing short of a revelation. It was, after all, an exceedingly competent little film hiding underneath the video fuzz. This is a solid transfer. The print is riddled with dirt and scratches but that only befits the thoroughly blue-collar production. Colors and detail are lovely during the snow-encrusted exteriors, even sporting some depth on occasion. A handful of low-light interior scenes skew the image more towards a hazy gray than true black, but this seems a limitation of the film itself, not Olive's transfer. Audio is clear if (typically) unremarkable. Olive has even thrown in a commentary track featuring director James L. Conway and his wife and star, Karen Balding*. Despite this release's many strengths, the truly remarkable aspect of The Boogens arriving on blu-ray is that it was even considered for the format in the first place. The fact that a film like this, one having missed the DVD era completely, has now found new life on this most definitive of home video formats only foretells splendid things to come for lovers of genre cinema. Screw streaming; viva blu-ray.

(Buy it from Amazon if you want, but ImportCDs has it cheaper and they ship it early. Choose wisely).

* Olive is often slagged off on home video forums for their business practices. Sometimes the complaints are legitimate (burned in subtitles, what?) but more often not (lots of griping about bad cover art, the lack of bonus features or total restoration). As far as this chap is concerned, Olive are doing a fine service to the unholy lords of cinema by releasing such consistently high quality releases at the breakneck clip they do. With blu-ray releases of Fassbinder's Despair, Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Elaine May's A New Leaf, and the Jeff Speakman kenpo-action vehicle The Perfect Weapon already available or forthcoming, they are trying really hard to appeal to every twist of my cinematic taste-buds. Heck, I received their release of The Boogens and their release of Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar on the same day! This truly is a Renaissance.

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