The 13th Floor

Slashback! 1980’s THE BOOGEYMAN is Gonna Getcha!

Pity the poor, misunderstood slasher flick: even during its lucrative box-office peak in the early ‘80s, it was still considered the bastard child of horror, and a common target of critical venom from critics who scapegoated the slasher as an example of horror’s decline into crass exploitation and cultural irrelevance. It was hated so much, in fact, that it’s truly shocking to see how much slasher cinema is not only celebrated today, but lovingly referenced in dozens of successful horror films over the past few years.

But I’m not here to analyze the slasher’s impact on modern horror cinema… I’m making this weekly column a celebration of all those grimy, goofy, chilling and cheesy moments from the genre’s long and sordid history: overlooked gems, camp oddities, bargain-basement bloodbaths, trend-setting tropes, and other assorted weirdness. More than enough print has been dedicated to the big-name slasher franchises, so you won’t be reading about Jason, Michael and Freddy here. Instead, maybe you’ll learn something new… and, if you’re lucky, even find a new addition to your movie collection.

Okay, that’s enough prologue. Let’s get bloody.

Horror fans of a certain age will never forget film critics Roger Ebert & Gene Siskel’s hatred of the slasher genre, consummated in the notorious 1981 “Women in Danger” episode of their early TV series SNEAK PREVIEWS. If only they’d known how many young horror fans were watching that episode in terrified rapture, hoping to one day view the forbidden delights of the films Roger & Gene trashed on that show (many of which they’d never even seen, sometimes even basing their assumptions on the promotional art alone). Among the various film clips and trailers referenced in that show — and the one which most captured my young imagination — was a creepy, surreal and colorful trailer for low-budget 1980 slasher THE BOOGEYMAN.

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One of many quickie low-rent horrors rushed into theaters in the wake of John Carpenter’s 1978 smash HALLOWEEN, this was the first pure horror project for German director Ulli Lommel — a former protégé of director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who produced Lommel’s 1973 film THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES, based on the real-life exploits of serial killer Fritz Haarmann (Lommel’s cinematic fascination with serial killers would resurface much later in his career… more on that later).

Merging the already well-established stalk-and-slash formula with supernatural elements inspired by THE EXORCIST and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, filtered further through a European sense of surrealism, BOOGEY scored big box-office; sadly, it would prove to be the high point of Lommel’s directing career (like I said, we’ll get back to that one).

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Lommel’s then-wife Suzanna Love stars as Lacey, a young mother traumatized by a childhood incident in which she helped her younger brother Willy murder mom’s creepy boyfriend — a brutish man we only see wearing a nylon stocking over his face. As a young man, Willy (played by Love’s real-life brother Nicholas) appears to be emotionally stunted by the trauma, and hasn’t spoken a word since the night of the murder.

The pair move to the family’s rural New England farmhouse, along with Lacey’s husband and young son, but despite the peaceful setting Lacey is continually haunted by visions of the stocking-faced fiend. On the advice of her therapist (John Carradine, in a brief cameo), Lacey attempts to confront the demons of her past by revisiting the site where it all happened — but she is horrified to see an image of the murdered man in the bedroom mirror, which she impulsively shatters.

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In a pretty dickish move, Lacey’s husband insists on taking the mirror home and glues it back together to prove once and for all that what she saw was mere delusion. Of course, any horror fan would know this is the absolute wrong thing to do in this situation: it seems breaking the mirror releases the man’s malevolent spirit, which possesses and/or kills anyone who comes into contact with it; even a tiny sliver of the glass is potent enough to kill.

The idea of a broken mirror releasing what it has “seen” actually originates in ancient folklore, and Lommel exploits this notion to create some unique twists on the slasher formula. The concept of the villain as a disembodied force which indirectly causes victims’ deaths (explored more thoroughly in the FINAL DESTINATION franchise) results in some pretty unique kills: the most memorable of which involve a busty young woman and a pair of scissors, and a young couple whose make-out session ends in a grotesque lip-lock.

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I’ll admit this film is far from a masterpiece — it’s pretty rough around the edges, with some ragged edits and a few clunky performances — but as a whole, THE BOOGEYMAN is strangely compelling, with a deliberate, dread-inducing pace and a floating, dreamlike ambiance, well-supported by a creepy electronic score from Tim Krog.

Unfortunately , this film remains the sole high watermark in Lommel’s directing career, which began its steady decline with a lackluster sequel (Lommel was not happy about shooting a follow-up, and it shows), and a couple of interesting genre entries: BRAINWAVES and THE DEVONSVILLE TERROR, also starring Love. But over the past decade or so, Lommel’s output has been almost entirely relegated to cheap, exploitative direct-to-video clunkers about real-life murderers (The Zodiac, BTK, Son of Sam, the Green River Killer, ad nauseam). While none of these latter-day efforts are worth your time, I’m stubbornly holding out a sliver (no pun intended) of hope that Lommel might have recovered his muse at last for the upcoming sequel/remake BOOGEYMAN: REINCARNATION — perhaps with more adequate budget and a tighter script to smooth out the bumpy bits, but with the same surreal, dreamlike sensibility he brought to this respectable horror debut.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see… meanwhile, here’s that notorious trailer:

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