I’ve said before that I’ve been to a lot of funerals. From the time I was a toddler, I’ve seen quite a few corpses (post-undertaker, of course). I believe the first time I ever saw a dead body in the more distanced, clinical sense was in Faces of Death, the notorious Mondo/faux-u-mentary film that included crime scene footage and scenes of bodies being cut open in morgues. The dispassionate way that faces were peeled off to display the skulls underneath was both instructional and repellant (let’s be honest, I’ll never be a doctor). But it’s because this is something most people don’t see every day, and death is something which fascinates and terrifies many folks, that it feels forbidden and sideshow-esque, and that’s the appeal. Compare that to most narrative film morticians, who are usually quirky, nonchalant, and flat-out morbid. These are people who seem to make a point of eating while performing autopsies (some even place their food on top of the corpses), and their sense of humor is jet black. Sure, sometimes they’re portrayed as strict professionals, but this is typically when their sole purpose is to supply some expositional information for other characters to pursue. In James Cummins’ The Boneyard we get Shepard (Norman Fell), who looks as if he were auditioning to be one of Zartan’s Dreadnoks in a G.I. Joe movie and falls squarely in the former category. Yet, both he and his colleague Miss Poopinplatz (an un-feather-boa-and-fright-wig-adorned Phyllis Diller) are incongruous in a film seemingly built on incongruity. They are comedic characters instructed to play it straight. Sort of. It’s things like this that make the film simultaneously stand up and fall over.
Children are turning up dead, and, having hit a brick wall in the investigation, Lieutenant Jersey Callum (Ed Nelson) turns to psychic Alley Oates (Deborah Rose), who has holed herself up in her house. Following a lead on Chen (Robert Yun Ju Ahn) who speaks about having to feed dead flesh to some evil being called a Kyoshi (which, according to my minimal research, doesn’t exist in Chinese folklore; the closest thing I could find to its name is the Jiangshi, or hopping vampires, which the monsters in this film definitely are not, so perhaps “Kyoshi” is the spirit’s/demon’s proper name, like “Phil” or “Stan?”), our heroes find their way to the county morgue where the dead kids’ cadavers don’t want to stay dead.
The film centers on death and grief through metaphors of same, while not being strictly about the cessation of physical life. Alley refuses to leave her home because being out in the world is painful. Her psychic powers are too emotionally agonizing, and she cannot handle the grief that comes with them. She carries a burden for the dead, and it is killing her. She also has a more personal reason for her sequestration, and this turmoil is reflected in the state of her house. It is in complete disarray, a mirror for her mental state as she deals (or refuses to deal) with the torment of living. Likewise, Dana (Denise Young) attempted ending her own life because she couldn’t handle it. The two women encompass the despair of living, one mentally, the other physically. In this way, these living characters relate to the living dead in the film. These people have stopped living though they continue to draw breath. The correlation is that, if Alley and Dana continue on the paths they are on, they will become truly dead and, like the zombie kids, corrupted and evil. The core of their journey then is to find a reason to live, but they must desire this and fight in order to do it.
The Boneyard also deals with issues of horrors of the past and their effects on the present. Alley carries the weight of a personal loss which cripples her. This is portrayed in the files and photos she keeps from previous cases. She tries to burn these things, to divest herself of her responsibility, but she can’t do it. It is tortuous for her to get involved, but she is obligated to do so; she owes the dead a debt only she can pay. Similarly, Chen is a descendant of people who first unleashed a force of evil centuries ago (in order to do something good, though selfish), and his family have been doing penance ever since (and still performing questionable acts, though now for a more “noble” purpose). The zombies and monsters are a legacy of evil, a bastardization of good intent, and they are the embodiments of what happens when the agony of grief is not dealt with in a healthy fashion. For the characters to find closure and new roads toward their emotional healing, they must confront this debasement and defeat it.
One of the first things that stood out about this film for me was that the leads are completely not the standard for the Horror genre (or most mainstream, populist fare, for that matter). Jersey is a middle-aged cop, and Alley is an overweight woman. Not being teenyboppers or hip, energetic twenty-somethings, they go against type, and Cummins gears the story, at least initially, toward a more serious, adult-oriented audience. This is reinforced by the inclusion of Dana, a woman who is in the morgue because she was mistakenly presumed dead following her failed suicide attempt. You would suspect that her character and her relationship with Detective Mullin (James Eustermann) are included in order to appeal to a younger audience and handle the film’s action scenes, but this is not strictly the case. Alley still gets to do quite a bit of physical action, and it’s refreshing to see. The zombie children are also extremely creepy and truly shiver-inducing. Even Diller doesn’t go for a lot of one-liners (though she does get a few in). The casting of both her and Fell in more earnest roles is perplexing, since neither one is especially known for this type of character.
Still, there are heightened elements that don’t match up with the more somber aspects of the film. The story begins as a police procedural, and the first half of the movie is rather slow-paced and inactive. It isn’t until after the half way mark that the supernatural aspects kick in. Once they do, the film attempts to tread a thin line between genuine frights and outlandish, creature feature action. A couple of the monsters toward the end are discordant with what comes before and appear to have been inspired by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth (and if you’ve ever seen a still from this movie it was most likely the semi-iconic Floofsums who is given more importance than she probably should have [while being a fantastic-looking beast]). The absurdities that pop up in the back half just don’t sit well with the more somber first half, with the finale being a full-on series of action sequences which do work rather well. Nevertheless, while The Boneyard never gels as a whole, and I can’t say that I loved my viewing of it, I value the chances that the filmmakers took and the ideas they brought up, and I respect them for that.
MVT: The monster effects are great on the more serious and the more absurd creatures equally. So, big applause to Andy Clement and the entire makeup effects department on the film.
Make or Break: The first dream vision that Alley has is chilling and effective. After seeing it you can understand why she is reticent to use her abilities, and you understand a lot more about her character.