The bodies bounce and pogo in a wave, a tumult of flesh giving in to drug-induced sonic abandon. Guitars squeal while a snarling singer barks righteous punk fury into a microphone. A mosh pit careens around, a frenzied whirlwind of action, undulating to the rawness of the music. An angry leather-clad punk and his girlfriend storm out of the scene into the coolness of the night sky, pissed. They only make it so far before their young lives are cut short at the business end of a baseball bat wielded by a muscle car driving psycho in a grim-face black mask.
So begins Brad Michael Elmore’s BOOGEYMAN POP. Imagine GEORGE WASHINGTON-era David Gordon Green remaking SUBURBIA (Penelope Spheeris’s seminal document of the dead-end lives of small town teenage punk cretins) as a lo-fi slasher version of TRICK ‘R TREAT (with a dash of LIQUID SKY’s hazy fantastical drugginess laid on top) and you might come close to approximating the drugged-out vibes of Elmore’s DIY indiecore small town horror. It’s all sun-dappled impressionistic Malickian camera work and suburban soul-suck drama spiked with brutal spots of riff-infused violence and flights of supernaturally-infused magical realist psychedelia.
The Slugger is our sort of frothing-mad mascot, careening through the film battering in skulls and crushing bones on the margins while our ostensible heroes go about on their own tormented walkabouts. It’s a bad night for the youth in this small suburban town, where the bored teens snort coke and pop hallucinogens on their way to the local music club to let out their inert rage at a punk show and escape the deadening ennui of their broken family lives. It’s not just the Slugger, though, that threatens their lives; he’s the most violent representation of the way these bland suburban streets and the absent or negligent parents that populate all those lookalike houses are leading their children to die before they even can fully bloom.
BOOGEYMAN POP is broken into separate chapters, each one starting from the same mundane moment of unrequited afternoon-light desire and following each of the three particulars involved as their day individually turns worse. Tony (James Paxton) is a listless long-haired teen punk, the kind of good, but troubled, kid who longs to escape the sallow dregs of his empty existence and hide his traumas with mumbled assurances that belie the longing in his eyes to leave. He’s at his friend Danielle’s (Dominique Booth) to get a stick and poke tattoo from her. Danielle looks at him with barely concealed lust; he hooks up her friends but she wants nothing more than for him to want her. Spying from across the street is Danielle’s 13 year old neighbor, exercising furiously in an attempt to build his physique into the kind of thing that he naively believes would attract his beautiful older crush into making his pubescent fantasies come true.
It’s from that moment the movie splits off like a Hydra, intermingling the three stories while the Slugger’s Cadillac idles on the sides. Tony is given a new drug called Wendigo that his drug-dealing best friend Forrest (Dillon Lane) has been tasked to sell at the show; dealing with an abusive mother and a father who’s brain-cancer has rendered him unobservantly child-like, Tony pops the pill to forget his troubles, the electric energy of the chemical within unleashing something aggressive and furious within his flesh.
Danielle runs into Tony at the show, but is there to keep an eye on her friends, one of whom is in the sway of Matt (Greg Hill), an older poly pagan drug-dealer with a coterie of nubile, underage girlfriends at his disposal. Needless to say, Matt isn’t your ordinary, everyday small town sleazebag creep, with a plan in motion for nothing less than Danielle’s soul at stake.
Finally there’s the legend of Ritchie, a Satan-worshipping psycho killed in a barn decades ago who Danielle’s young neighbor and his friends decide to pay tribute to while popping mushrooms and play-acting at their burgeoning, unformed masculinities. Of course they resurrect him, the aforementioned Slugger, who like Sam in TRICK ‘R TREAT gets his own centerpiece story after spending the rest of the film somewhat on the sidelines. This element plays like Stranger Things merged with HALLOWEEN, synthwaved-out nostalgia as bike-riding wannabe miscreants are pursued by a heavy metal boogeyman intent on splattering brains across pavement before night ends.
As BOOGEYMAN POP weaves into and out of these stories, it builds into its genre elements, getting weirder and woolier as it goes along. Tony’s story is almost a straight drama, disaffected youth torn between burning out and running away, laced with Tony’s red-eyed hallucinogenic visions of sex, fights and sweaty moshpits blurring into riots of sound and color. There’s a certain tedium to some of these early scenes that reflect the torpid listlessness of small town life, but also make the film drag a bit as it ping pongs through these young lives that are destined for destruction. It’s the acting that keeps these scenes alive and chugging along, particularly Paxton and Booth. The former, son of the late, great Bill, has a bit of the tremulous, searching woundedness of someone like Keir Gilchrist, all empathetic quietude and palpable soulfulness. Booth, who remarkably only has three credits on her imdb page, is just as great, if maybe more so, conveying the confused, broken longing of a young woman who wants to be loved with the fierce protectiveness of a girl who has become far too wise and wary for her age. (Even at its most draggy, however, there’s an electric current of feeling underpinning the whole thing that at least makes this the kind of thing to make one look forward to seeing what Elmore does next.)
And just as life can get weird, a sense of surreality begins to permeate the naturalistic edges of Elmore’s universe. The landscapes around this small town are polluted with fractured families, sexual predators, coke-fueled aimlessness, rock ecstasy and sullen lives, with the Slugger randomly coming in and bashing these driftless youth in their heads much like the world does. By the time the last guitar peel fades, the last drum echoes and the drugs wear off, these teen’s lives are forever splattered with blood, death, loss and regret. That’s the painful lesson learned, kids — no matter how much you try to escape, life will come swinging for you.
–Johnny Donaldson (@johnnydonaldson)