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” that I find objectionable. I can actually appreciate a good PG or PG-13 horror romp, because it takes a great deal of skill to scare an audience while also exercising restraint. (If anyone doubts that such films can scare anyone, just remember that Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist are both rated PG.) And there are plenty of made-for-TV flicks I enjoy, though most of them are older productions from the 1970s. (A few excellent cases in point: 1971’s Duel, 1973’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, 1975’s Trilogy of Terror, and 1979’s Salem’s Lot). But when it comes to made-for-TV frightfests that are specifically marketed for families, I find the results are often too insulting to children. TV executives seem to think these works need to be completely goofy, and/or they can’t include any serious threats to their characters. Comedy relief is an absolute must in this particular niche, to be sure; but such films shouldn’t be played entirely for laughs. Many kids enjoy the rush of being scared, and it’s good for them to enjoy that rush a little (as long as they enjoy it; some kids don’t, and that’s okay too). Fear is the strongest and most primordial of all human emotions, and everyone must learn to deal with it somehow. As much as we might wish to prevent children from ever being scared of anything, we do them a serious disservice by turning everything we would normally consider threatening into a joke.
Yet there are two kid-friendly made-for-TV horror films I remember seeing as a kid that 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). This double feature follows 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.” I just love this guy; he’s always pulling playful pranks on his wife and kids, chanting, “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.
The Davis kids are the first to notice there’s something weird about their new home. Aurie’s teddy bear goes missing; Jennifer hears phantom sneezes echoing around the place; and there’s an empty room at the end of the upstairs hallway that glows goblin green in the dead of night. The kids try to tell their parents what’s going on, but Carlton and Eloise assume they’re just pulling another family prank. So Corwyn, Aurie, and Jennifer visit the Lucifer Falls Historical Society in town, where the eccentric but friendly Neil Witherspoon (John Astin, otherwise known as “Gomez Addams” in the original Addams Family) gives them the scoop on why there is so much weird shit happening in their house.
Back in colonial times, there was this major asshat in Lucifer Falls named William Hanover. This creep enjoyed terrorizing all the local children, who even had a nickname for him: “The Boogedy Man.” Hanover had a thing for a local gal known as the Widow Marion; but her son Jonathan knew he was no good, and Marion kept turning Hanover down. So he sold his soul to the devil, and Satan gave him a magic cloak instilled with crazy supernatural powers. Then Hanover kidnapped Jonathan, telling Marion if she didn’t marry him, she’d never see her little boy again. He tried casting his first spell to prove his point, but he blew up his house by mistake, killing both himself and Jonathan in the process. Over the years, different houses have been built over that same property, and each has been haunted. The house in which the Davises now live currently occupies that spot, and Witherspoon thinks the things Corwyn, Aurie, and Jennifer keep seeing and hearing are being caused by Mr. Boogedy and Jonathan’s ghosts.
Armed with this information, the Davis kids return home to insist that their parents call a realtor immediately. That’s when all hell breaks loose, as the Boogedy Man reveals himself to Carlton and Eloise. Then they meet the ghost of the Widow Marion, who has been visiting the house to find her boy Jonathan for centuries, but who is powerless to enter due to Boogedy’s magic. The family decides right then and there they’ve had enough of this Boogedy boogedy boolshit, and little Aurie sucks up the bastard’s cloak with a vacuum cleaner. The evil spirit is banished, and the ghosts of Marion and Jonathan are reunited.
In Bride of Boogedy, the Davises have grown into their new community, and Carlton’s been put in charge of organizing the Lucifer Falls Town Fair. He’s resented by a guy named Tom Lynch (played by Eugene Levy), a jerk who seeks to sabotage the festivities. In doing so, Lynch accidentally resurrects the ghost of William Hanover, who then takes possession of both Lynch and Carlton to get his magic cloak back. Eloise dresses 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 join forces with a repentant Lynch, a psychic lady named Madeleinska (played by Karen Kondazian), a friendly grave digger named Lazarus (Vincent Schiavelli), and their pal Jonathan the ghost boy to get their parents back.
There’s plenty of humor in the Boogedy movies, but I also think they’re quite creepy. They scared the hell out of me when I was a kid, and I have to admit they still creep me out a little now, even as an adult. (I can handle watching 1999’s The Blair Witch Project when 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 either Boogedy flick for some reason. What the hell?) They are definitely child-appropriate, but they don’t exactly pull their punches either. There is a real element of danger to them; after all, one of the ghosts 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, and you’ll never see your family again.
One thing that makes these films so effective is the excellent sound design. The music score was composed by John Addison, and it can sound pretty light-hearted 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 more like something you’d hear in an Amityville Horror movie. (The children’s choir is a nice touch.) It’s usually the case with films of this sort that the music remains goofy all the way through, so this is a major distinction for Boogedy. Additionally, some of the noises in these movies really send shivers down my spine. I’m thinking specifically of this one sequence in the second film when William Hanover’s voice comes whispering to Corwin and Aurie while they’re sleeping in their beds at night.
There is an element of ancestor veneration in the fact that the Davis family must work together with the good ghosts of Lucifer Falls to defeat William Hanover. And while Hanover’s magic comes from the devil, other characters like Madeleinska demonstrate that magic is morally neutral and can be used for good purposes as well as bad. (It says something that the evil magician is a stuffy old dude dressed in Pilgrim attire, while the good magician is a sarcastic witch who drives around on a motorcycle.) There is even an execration in one sequence, where a Boogedy-possessed Carlton is accidentally exorcised when his brother-in-law makes him laugh. In ancient Mesopotamia, magicians would wear freaky masks and dance around people who were believed to be possessed, driving out the evil spirits by making the afflicted laugh.1 This is pretty much what Carlton’s brother-in-law does in Bride of Boogedy, and it’s an awesome site to see.
If you have kids and you’ve been looking for something like this to share with them, I can’t recommend the Boogedy movies enough. They are now available for streaming on Amazon, and you can rent or buy them as you wish. If your kids are into ghosts, this should be right up their alley.