Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Bone Yard (1991)

Written by: James Cummins

Directed by: James Cummins

Ed Nelson as Jersey Callum
Deborah Rose as Alley Oates
Normal Fell as Shepard
Denise Young as Dana
Phyllis Diller as Mrs. Poopinplatz

It's probably just a function of the fact that we live in a golden era of cult movies getting great releases, but it seems like lately every time I hear a movie mentioned on another show or we talk about one on Attack of the Killer Podcast lamenting that it's not out on Blu-ray, within a month Scream Factory or Vinegar Syndrome or someone announces it's on their release schedule. A while back, Matt Weinhold of Monster Party brought this one up, and I had never heard of it but it sounded like something right up my alley. I had planned to look it up on YouTube, but sure enough, just a few days later Code Red announced a disc coming in a few months.

Jersey Callum is a detective with a problem, and the solution lies in psychic Alley Oates, who has helped the department on several tough cases in the past. Unfortunately, the problem involves yet another batch of murdered children and the solutions Alley has provided in the past left her raddled with so much PTSD that she can't even get out of bed long enough to wash the dishes anymore.

A flareup of psychic activity draws Alley back in for one more case, and she and Callum head off to the local mortuary to examine the bodies of three children said to have been kept locked in a local doctor's cellar and fed on human cadavers before he finally murdered them and turned himself in. The doctor keeps claiming that they weren't children at all, but ancient demons called kyoshi that were bonded to his family centuries ago. Of course, no one believes him and he kills himself rather than face the consequences of his actions. No, not the consequences of murdering three children. The consequences of trying to duck out of his hereditary curse. Those three tiny corpses aren't nearly as dead as everyone thinks, and they certainly aren't human children. They are, however, getting rather peckish...

I've said it before, and this certainly won't be the last time: one of the great joys of being a devotee of weird cinema is discovering movies that can still surprise you. I fully expected this to have been adapted from a 70s or 80s pulp horror novel like the ones featured in Grady Hendrix's indispensable Paperbacks from Hell, and was surprised to discover it was an entirely original project by first-time feature director Cummins. The story of the production is so cut-and-dry, it was almost disappointingly boring. Cummins approached producer Richard Brophy with a script, Brophy liked it, they raised the money and made the movie. The only major setbacks seem to have been not getting Clu Gulager and Alice Cooper as their first choices to play Callum and Shepard respectively.

While it does suffer from some odd pacing at times, there's a lot here to love. One of my favorite touches is Dana, a woman brought into the mortuary as a suicide, who turns out not to have done a very good job at it and wakes up in a very unexpected place amidst the demon-fueled insanity. Most of the performances are solid, with one of the odd low points being Phyllis Diller. By all accounts she had a good time making the movie, but her line delivery is often weird and unnatural, like it was her first time in front of the camera. Part of that could just be the editing, as there are a lot of takes with all of the characters that need a few seconds trimmed off either end.

Let's be honest, though, we don't watch these movies for the stellar performances. The makeup on the three demon children would be shockingly good for a movie ten times more expensive than this. They look more like Aztec mummies than your bog standard zombie, and although the masks are pretty inexpressive, that somehow serves to make them creepier rather than fake-looking. Then there are the other monsters. When injured or destroyed, the demons expel copious amounts of disgusting snot custard which, if it gets in your mouth or eyes or an open wound or whatever, causes normal living creatures to become hulking mutant hell-beasts. Say what you will about the rest of the movie, there's nowhere else you're going to see a bunch of people trapped in a morgue being attacked by a 10-foot tall Phyllis Diller Garbage Pail Kid monster and her mutant zombie were-poodle. In what is hands down my favorite part of the movie, when the latter beast smashes its way through a door to menace our heroes, Dana bursts into laughter for a moment before sobering up and fleeing the danger. She has, after all, had a rather strange evening and it's a wonderfully realistic acknowledgment of the absurdity of their situation without resorting to winking at the camera.

While it's nice to have something different than just another bunch of zombies, it seems that rather than do any research into Japanese folklore, Mr. Cummins just picked the first Japanese word that he liked the sound of and went with that as the name of his monsters. Kyoshi is a real word, but it has sweet fuck all to do with demons. It's a fairly common Japanese name, but it has another meaning in the world of games such as shogi (basically Japanese chess) and go (an immensely complicated chess-like strategy game created over 2,500 years ago, considered one of the four essential arts by Chinese scholars of antiquity and thought to be the oldest board game in existence that is still being played today) as well as cultural activities like flower arranging and tea ceremonies, but most famously, martial arts.

The dan system of ranking was first used at a go school during the Edo period (1603 – 1868, the reign of the Tokugawa Shogunate), and was later adopted into kendo and karate, as well as a host of other martial arts all around Asia. It is represented by a series of different colored belts, each symbolizing levels of achievement. Kyoshi, specifically, is quite a high level – a 7th or 8th degree black belt. The “kyo” means “professor” or “philosopher”, so a person of this level is now ready to teach the philosophy of martial arts as well as the physical parts. Callum and Oates could have used a couple of black belts to help them fight whatever the hell those ghouls actually are. I'm sure there is a creature that roughly corresponds to a zombie child that vomits toxic sludge capable of mutating normal humans and animals into giant monsters somewhere in the annals of Japanese demonology, but damned if I have the time to read down that list and find it!


  1. That alternative mega-poodle cover totally threw me. But the main cover on Amazon with a possessed Phyllis Diller on it never even got a second look from me when I worked at my local video store. Perhaps I shouldn't have judged a video by it's cover. If I'd known about the snot shooting and poodle gigantism (or realized that actually was a possessed Diller on the cover... had no idea...) I definitely would have given it a shot. I will now!