I don’t normally go for “family-friendly” made-for-TV horror flicks. It’s not necessarily the “family-friendly” part, or even the made-for-TV part. Unlike some other horror buffs I know, I actually appreciate a good PG or PG-13 horror romp; I like it when movies succeed at being scary without resorting to the gross stuff. And there are plenty of made-for-TV flicks that I enjoy, though most of them are Stephen King adaptations. (I especially like the 1997 version of The Shining). The problem is when a made-for-TV flick is intentionally designed to be family-friendly; I can appreciate the purpose of the exercise, but I find that the results are often too insulting to children. There are so many grisly stories that parents have traditionally told their kids for generations; for example, the tale of Hansel and Gretel was some pretty potent nightmare fuel for me when I was a young’un. But for some reason, TV executives seem to think that for something to be “family-friendly,” it has to be completely goofy and it can’t include any kind of serious threat to its characters. I think it’s always a good idea to include some comedy relief in films of this sort, but such films shouldn’t be played entirely for laughs. Many kids enjoy the rush of being scared, and I think it’s actually good to let them enjoy that rush a little (as long as the kids in question enjoy that sort of thing; some don’t, and that’s fine too). Besides, fear is perhaps the very strongest of all human emotions, and everyone must learn to deal with it somehow. As much as we might want to prevent our children from ever being scared of anything, we do them a serious disservice by turning everything that we would normally consider threatening into a joke.
The DVD cover art for Mr. Boogedy (1986) and Bride of Boogedy (1987)
Yet there are two made-for-TV horror films for children that I think are actually quite frightening, and which left a deep impression on me when I was a kid. These are Disney’s Boogedy movies, which include Mr. Boogedy (1986) and its sequel, Bride of Boogedy (1987). These movies are about the Davis family, who move into a haunted house in a town called Lucifer Falls (get it?). The father, Carlton (played by Richard Masur), is a salesman for a practical joke company called “Gag City,” and I just love him; he’s always pulling playful pranks on his wife and kids, and he always says, “Just kidding, just kidding!” in a way that makes me laugh my ass off. (Every time I see Masur in anything else, I always think of him as the “Gag City Guy,” even in John Carpenter’s The Thing.) Carlton’s wife, Eloise (Mimi Kennedy), is used to all of his tricks, and Corwin and Aurie (their two boys) enjoy helping their old man in his goofy schemes. (Corwin is played by a young David Faustino, whom most people probably remember today as “Bud Bundy” in Married with Children.) The only member of the family who doesn’t quite fit in with the rest is Jennifer (a young Kristy Swanson), who just doesn’t get her father’s insane sense of humor.
Naturally, the Davis children are the first to notice that there’s something weird about their new house. Aurie’s teddy bear goes missing, Jennifer keeps hears phantom sneezing around the place, and there’s an empty room at the end of the upstairs hallway that glows green in the middle of the night. The kids try to tell their parents what’s going on, but Carlton and Eloise assume they’re just trying to pull a prank of their own. So they visit the Lucifer Falls Historical Society, where Mr. Neil Witherspoon (John Astin, otherwise known as “Gomez Addams” in the original Addams Family) gives them the scoop on why there’s so much weird shit happening in their house.
It turns out that back in colonial times, there was this asshole in town named William Hanover who enjoyed terrorizing all of the local children. The kids even had a nickname for him: “The Boogedy Man.” Billy Boy also had a thing for a lovely lass known as the Widow Marion, but her son Jonathan knew he was no good. Marion kept turning Hanover down despite all of his advances, so he conjured up the devil to sell his soul in exchange for the ability to make poor Marion do whatever he wanted. Old Nick gave Hanover a magic cloak that would give him all kinds of strange powers, and then the jerk decided to kidnap little Jonathan. He told Marion that if she didn’t marry him, she’d never see her little boy again; then, to prove his point, he tried to cast his first spell using the magic cloak. This didn’t turn out quite as planned, and the Boogedy Man ended up blowing up his very own house, with both himself and Jonathan within. Over the years, different houses have been built over that same property, and each of them has been haunted. The house in which the Davises now live currently occupies that spot, and Mr. Witherspoon believes the things that the Davis children keep seeing and hearing are being caused by the ghosts of Mr. Boogedy and Jonathan.
“The Boogedy Man walked all over me! Huh? Huh? Just kidding, just kidding!”
Armed with this newfound knowledge, the Davis kids return home to insist that their parents think about calling a realtor. That same night, all hell breaks loose as the Boogedy Man finally decides to reveal himself to the family. Eloise also receives a visit from the ghost of the Widow Marion, who has been coming to the house to find her boy Jonathan, but who is powerless to actually enter the place due to Boogedy’s magic. Well Eloise puts her foot down right then and there and decides she won’t have any more of this Boogedy nonsense, so the entire family decides to take him down. They aren’t exactly sure how to do this at first, but little Aurie ends up snagging the old bastard by sucking up his magic cloak with the vacuum cleaner. Then Boogedy fades away into nothingness, and Marion and Jonathan are reunited.
In the sequel, Bride of Boogedy, the Davis family have fully grown into their new community, and Carlton’s been put in charge of organizing the Lucifer Falls Town Fair. Unfortunately, the Davises are resented by a guy named Tom Lynch (played by Eugene Levy), another practical joke salesman who seeks to sabotage all of the fun things they’ve planned for the town. In the process of doing so, Lynch inadvertently helps Mr. Boogedy return from the netherworld, and Boogedy takes possession of both him and Carlton at different points to get his magic cloak back. Eloise makes the mistake of dressing as a colonial woman for the fair, which leads the Boogedy-possessed Carlton to think she’s the Widow Marion. So Boogedy possesses her too, and the Davis kids end up having to join forces with Lynch, a psychic lady named Madeleinska (played by Karen Kondazian), and a friendly grave digger named Lazarus (Vincent Schiavelli) to get their parents back. The budget for Bride of Boogedy was considerably larger than that of its predecessor, so the filmmakers were able to do a lot more with this one, and it feels more like a theatrical movie. Heck, even the special effects in this one are comparable to a low-budget theatrical film of the period.
There’s plenty of humor in the Boogedy movies, but I also think they’re actually quite scary. They scared the hell out of me when I was a kid, at least, even giving me nightmares; and I have to admit that they still creep me out as an adult. (It’s surreal to think that I can handle watching 1999’s The Blair Witch Project while I’m alone in the house in the middle of the night, but I just can’t bring myself to do the same thing with the Boogedy movies for some reason. What the hell?) I think this is partly just because I remember being scared by them at a very young age, which probably helps them maintain a certain mystique within my subconscious mind. But I think it’s also partly because they are genuinely well-crafted little horror stories. These movies are definitely child-appropriate, but they don’t exactly pull all of their punches either. There is a real element of danger to them; one of the ghosts, after all, is that of a child who was pretty much murdered by the villain (albeit accidentally). And as Jonathan explains to the Davis boys at one point, if Mr. Boogedy “gets you,” that’s all there is to it; you’ll never be seen by your family again.
Screw you, Hamburger-Face!
I think a significant contribution to the effectiveness of these films is the sound design. The music score was composed by John Addison, and it can get pretty light and goofy when the Davis family are up to their normal shenanigans. But whenever Boogedy’s on the scene, the music immediately turns dark and serious, sounding like something you’d hear in a “proper” horror film. (The use of a children’s choir is an especially nice touch.) It’s usually the case with these kinds of movies that the music stays goofy all the way through, so this alone is a major distinction for Boogedy. Additionally, some of the noises that are heard really will send shivers down your spine. I’m thinking specifically of this one part in the second film when Boogedy’s voice comes whispering to Corwin and Aurie while they’re sleeping in their beds at night; even just thinking about it is pretty goddamn unsettling.
There’s also a Pagan sensitivity to these movies that I really enjoy. There’s an element of ancestor veneration in the fact that the Davis family must work together with the good ghosts of Lucifer Falls to defeat the Boogedy Man. And while William Hanover’s magic comes from the devil, other characters like Madeleinska show us that magic in general is morally neutral and can be used for good purposes as well as bad. (It also says something that the evil magician is a stuffy old dude dressed in Pilgrim attire, while the good magician is a sarcastic witchy lady who drives around on a motorcycle.) There is also a sequence when Carlton, who has been possessed by Boogedy, is accidentally exorcised when his brother-in-law pulls a prank on him and gets him to laugh. The idea that evil spirits can be robbed of their power when we laugh at them is a Pagan idea that goes all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia. When a person was being oppressed by a demon, a local magician would put on a terrifying mask, cover him or herself with animal skins, and dance and jump around while making crazy noises until the afflicted person started to laugh. This was thought to frighten the invading demon away, and this is exactly what Carlton’s brother-in-law does in Bride of Boogedy; he dresses in a gorilla costume, sneaks into the Davis family’s house to try and scare them, and ends up looking so damn ridiculous that the possessed Carlton just starts laughing his ass off, ridding himself of Mr. Boogedy in the process.
If you’re looking for a good couple of movies to share with your children this Samhain, I can’t recommend the Boogedy movies enough; they’re now available for streaming on Amazon, and you can rent or buy them as you wish. Please keep in mind, these movies did give me nightmares when I was little, and like I said above, they continue to give me the creeps today. So there is a possibility that your kids might have nightmares from watching them too, and if that’s something you’re looking to avoid, you might better wait until they’re at least 10 years of age. However, I definitely recommend these movies for parents who’d like to watch something that’s actually scary with their kids, but which doesn’t include anything really nasty.
Happy Halloween, folks, and Merry Samhain! May the Gods and the Blessed Ancestors bless you all during this most holy time of year!