Some movies begin with such a derivative wallop eyebrows are immediately raised, judgement already passed; you’ve been here before, many times before, and it takes serious resolve to resist the urge to switch over. This is particularly true with the notoriously formulaic slasher, which in its Halloween infancy had plagiarism whooshing through its crudely split arteries. Though many feel that John Carpenter’s franchise-spinning opus is above the slasher label, it was certainly the progenitor for a half-decade of like-for-like productions, low-budget movies which followed a very strict template in the hope of striking commercial gold.
Playing host to a seemingly endless list of slice-n-dicers that included Friday the 13th, Maniac, Prom Night, Terror Train, Christmas Evil and New Year’s Evil, 1980 was prime time was Halloween rip-offs, and with a Haddonfield-esque opening, a peewee murder triggered by sexual trauma, and a score that attempts to capture that Carpenter magic with the belated triumph of a broken music box, German director Ulli Lommel’s The Boogey Man seems like the most mimetic of the lot, but be patient. Approximately halfway through the film has an epiphany of sorts, a creative vision that borders on the feverishly nonsensical. The movie is every bit as mad, and as silly, as its reputation suggests.
It should be noted that the film’s soundtrack, despite lacking the commercial ubiquity of Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s dread-induced Halloween score, is actually rather impressive away from the context of the film, a Moog-driven assault of haunting melodies and eerie soundscapes that’s ultimately weakened by The Boogeyman‘s less-than-credible scares. When the movie isn’t mired in silliness, it has its atmospheric moments, mostly due to some inspired lighting and radio composer Tim Krog’s ear for dark ambiance. The Boogeyman was Krog’s only venture into the world of movie compositions. Given the right material, he may have made a name for himself in a genre where music and sound design can make or break a film, particularly on such a meagre budget.
Those who have had the curious pleasure of seeing The Boogey Man may wonder how it managed to attain a four-star rating with its shoddy editing, uneven pacing and low production values, but at least two of those stars were awarded out of sheer fascination, because anything this strange, regardless of how cheap and poorly executed, is worth 85 minutes of anyone’s time. The movie is so unashamedly dissonant and downright ridiculous at times. It labours for the first half hour, at least ten minutes of recycled footage presented as flashbacks to flesh-out the film’s already scant running time (there’s even a repeated shot of a man carving a chicken that plunges you into a bizarre time loop of pure inanity), but as soon as protagonist Lacey (Suzanna Love) began skitzing out on her shrink’s chaise lounge, overcome by a lousy impression of a possessed Linda Blair from The Exorcist, my interest went from passive to positively engrossed. According to Dr. Warren, Lacey’s satanic ravings are a mere by-product of repressed guilt derived from an incident early in her childhood. All she has to do is face that guilt and all of her delusions will vanish. If only life was so simple!
The incident in question, one straight out of the Halloween playbook, sees a young Lacey and older brother Willy staring POV through a window as their mother embarks on the kind of kinky sex session that seems par for the course in the ????? household (sorry, but this film has no time for surnames). Lacey’s mother ????? (or first names in some cases) has a fetish for putting stockings over her lover’s head, triggering the kind of rape fantasy that makes monsters out of watching minors, especially when they’re ruthlessly tied to their beds for showing concern. Our beastly culprit takes a great deal of pleasure in the act too, almost as much as mommy dearest, who glibly presides over the whole ordeal while swigging from a bottle of bourbon. When Willy is freed by his sister with a butcher’s knife, triggering a shot almost identical to that of a young Michael Myers stalking his sister, a brutal stabbing mid-coitus is the man’s well-deserved punishment. In a movie renown for its laughable moments, its an incredibly bleak opening in sentiment.
Twenty years pass and our two siblings are living on a farm that looks suspiciously like the Amityville house with their aunt and uncle, an arrangement reminiscent of The Waltons with a macabre, almost incestuous vibe. Lacey is married with an extremely unfortunate child and Willy is a slack-jawed mute who dresses like an 8-year-old in a bright yellow t-shirt and denim dungarees. After receiving a letter from her dying mother, whose wish it is to see the kids she advocated the abuse of one last time, Lacey is consumed by rape nightmares featuring the nut job who altered her life forever, something husband Jake (Ron James) insists she confront by returning to her mother’s house, now inhabited by another family.
Willy, who burns the letter while ambling around the farm like a caveman with a barely understood idea, is clearly a bit potty, something a collection of knives and the attempted strangling of a lascivious local all-but confirm, but his violent tendencies and fascination with sharp implements are merely a red herring for the film’s true evil: an unconscionable, utterly devious, absolutely reprehensible… household mirror.
Rather than banish the memories of her mother’s psycho date, a return to Lacey’s childhood home instead unleashes the evil of his long-dormant spirit thanks to a mirror that bears his reflection, one she and Jake senselessly take home after the poor girl smashes it to smithereens in a fit of panic. Not only do they hold onto the mirror, they piece it back together and hang it from the kitchen wall — as plain an example of the ‘Idiot Plot’ theory as I care to remember, but there’s a method to the director’s madness.
Lommel, who set out to make a “movie about outrageous killings set in an average-looking environment with ordinary actors,” and certainly achieved that, consciously tapped into common folklore and superstition with his possession-come-slasher yarn, a fact stressed by the film’s Mexican title El Espejo Asesino, which roughly translates as The Killer Mirror. We’ve all heard the one about how breaking a mirror can bring bad luck, but there’s also a superstition that relates to any person dying in a room that contains a mirror. Apparently, that mirror will then show the reflection of the deceased looking over the shoulder of anyone staring into it. I’ve looked into a fair few mirrors over the years and have never experienced anything of the sort, but now I’m just tempting fate.
By dipping into the supernatural while adhering to the popular slasher template and its various tropes, The Boogey Man doesn’t quite fulfil the force of its conviction. In fact, it’s downright baffling at times. Once the evil is awoken, its powers are triggered by shards of broken mirror, an unseen presence stalking folk like a flesh Michael Myers. This would typically make sense for horror of the supernatural variety (think those inspired POV shots in The Evil Dead), but the presentation is just a little sketchy. For one thing, we get the ubiquitous heavy breathing synonymous with the sub-genre, the kind usually reserved for a physical entity with lungs, mouth and nose. The nature of the breathing is a little off too, less a lurking menace with perverse intentions, more a drunken sibling snoozing soundly. And then you have the movie’s kills…
With a budget of only $350,000 dollars to work with, portraying a supernatural entity was not going to be easy. Most of the time, victims are possessed and forced to turn implements on themselves (one neck stabbing is the sub-genre at its golden age best). Other times, weapons are attached to wires or simply ‘hover’ out of shot, which basically means some stagehand is holding them aloft while following the cinematographer around, creeping up on some unsuspecting victim with all the conviction of a rank amateur winging it in brand new territory. Occasionally those weapons are thrown just as unconvincingly, and when the crew attempt to push the boundaries a little further, reflecting mirrors, flashing lights and micro bursts of fire emanating from the belly of some unseen basin wow with all the spectacle of a turkey fart.
Despite The Boogey Man‘s obvious shortcomings, filmmaker Lommel, renown for his involvement with German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the New German Cinema movement, is considered relatively highbrow. As well as being involved with over fifty movies in a career that spanned five decades, he was famously associated with Andy Warhol and his revolutionary studio The Factory, a hip hangout for artists and drug experimentalists between 1962 and 1984. Warhol, who would sometimes hang around on set with his camera, would even appear in a small cameo role in Lommel’s 1979 crime drama Cocaine Cowboys. Lommel’s debut feature, 1973’s The Tenderness of Wolves (Die Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe), a drama based on the crimes of German serial killer and cannibal Fritz Haarmann, was even entered into the 23rd Berlin International Film Festival.
The same can’t be said of The Boogey Man, which truly loses its shit during the final act. It’s all so implausible, confusing and lacking in general competence. Everything that happens to these characters could easily have been avoided if only a modicum of logic was applied. The quickness with which events unfold, leaping from one revelation to the next, stumbling from one incongruous development to another, leaves you frantically filling in the blanks as we race towards a twist so innocuous and poorly executed it’s hardly worth the wait. In a sub-genre renown for it narrative convenience, the finale is lacking even the most basic degree of exposition, and boy is it in need of some! Sometimes you feel like a headless chicken warbling after a cast of actors thrown into a directorial wood chipper.
Those of you with a taste for the deliriously absurd will no doubt get a kick out of The Boogey Man, which was so successful it managed (by the grace of god) to forge TWO sequels, the first so notoriously wacky a Director’s Cut was later released, which is less the unedited cut advertised, more an audio commentary/documentary. Boogey Man II aka Revenge of the Boogey Man turns somewhat meta, treating the events of the first movie as true and moving affairs to California, a financially convenient location where unscrupulous Hollywood producers look to exploit Lacey’s story with typically dire consequences. In the tradition of fellow cheapo cash-in Silent Night, Deadly Night II, it’s also made up of mostly recycled footage from the original movie presented in flashback form, so if you’re not a sucker for such unfettered nonsense you can always seek out the first sequel and be done with it. Though I’m yet to see it, 1994’s Return of the Boogeyman, which Lommel would co-direct uncredited, is by all accounts unwatchable.
Incredibly, both The Boogeyman and Revenge of the Boogey Man were banished to the ‘Video Nasties’ list following the Video Recordings Act of 1984, which, a couple of kills notwithstanding, is pretty laughable all these years later. I guess folk were just more sensitive back then. Even more incredibly, The Boogey Man, released during the slasher explosion, managed a whopping $25,000,000 domestically, a king’s sum for such an appalling movie. Unfortunately, hardly any of that went to the filmmaker or his performers as distributor The Jerry Gross Organization was embroiled in a painful bankruptcy that swallowed almost every cent. Poetic justice or straight-up tragedy? I’ll leave that one for you to decide.