One of the most profitably disreputable film distributors in cinematic history, Sunn Classic Pictures made a fortune in the ’70s by making cheap family entertainment—most famously with The Life And Times Of Grizzly Addams and its TV spin-off—and dubious documentaries about the afterlife (Beyond And Back), historic conspiracy theories (The Lincoln Conspiracy), the Bible (In Search Of Noah’s Ark, In Search Of Historic Jesus), and more. The material was bland, but the Park City, Utah-based Sunn knew how to sell it through the practice of “four-walling,” renting out theaters one market at a time and then blitzing the airwaves with advertisements that promised more than the films could deliver. (From a TV ad for In Search Of Historic Jesus: “There are 18 years of Jesus’ life the Bible doesn’t account for. Where did he spend those missing years? You’ll find new answers in this startling motion picture!”)
By the time the ’80s rolled around, however, Sunn was trying to adapt to the new times, eschewing family-friendly material for leaden science fiction (Hangar 18) and the charmingly clunky, R-rated horror film The Boogens, now making its debut on DVD and Blu-ray after years of unavailability beyond the fond, hazy memories of the VHS generation. Directed, like Hangar 18, by James L. Conway, the 1981 release plays like a cross between the then-omnipresent slasher films and a ’50s monster movie. Set in Silver City, Utah—a town whose boom and bust history is established via the endless parade of archival newspaper headlines that rolls out over the opening credits—the film concerns odd doings at the old silver mine. But instead of Scooby and his gang of mystery solvers, the protagonists are two young miners (Fred McCarren and Jeff Harlan), their female companions (Anne-Marie Martin and Rebecca Balding), and an extremely animated dog who’s the focus of virtually every scene. Until, of course, he gets eaten by the Boogens.
It’s almost as if the Sunn team—which, by the time the film appeared, had become the Taft International Pictures team thanks to the sale of the company—didn’t quite trust their abilities in the world of horror and had to throw in a cute animal out of habit. The nods to the demands of ’80s horror films seem clumsier still. Harlan plays a character whose every sentence remarks on his unrelieved horniness, and Balding—who would go on to marry Conway in real life and work with him on the TV show Charmed, where he served as an executive producer—shows some skin because such were the expectations of the time.
The awkwardness helps make the film appealing today as it slowly moves toward revealing the monster that keeps offing the cast. For much of the film, that’s the same monster that menaced so many in the early ’80s: a handheld camera. The Boogens is eventually revealed to be a tentacled, none-too-frightening, Lovecraftian beastie in a climax that makes up in frenetic enthusiasm what it lacks in convincing special effects. At the time, Stephen King called it a “wildly energetic monster movie,” a description that only really applies to The Boogens’ final 15 minutes or so (and even that’s stretching things). But it’s pokily old-fashioned in ways are sure to charm those in search of horror movies of the sort they don’t really make anymore, as attempted by those who didn’t really know how to make them the first time around.
Key features: Just a commentary from Conway, Balding, and screenwriter David O’Malley, but it’s entertaining and self-deprecating, and a boon to those who’ve ever wondered how a film like The Boogens happens in the first place.