Sunday, 25 May 2014

Lost Horrors: Mikey [1992]

To understand why, beyond its not being especially good, Mikey has become the forgotten piece of horror history that it is you need to know a little bit of recent UK history, so please bear with me.

In February 1993 a two year old boy named James Bulger was taken from a shopping centre in Merseyside.  Following this, Bulger was tortured and murdered by the side of a railway line.  This would have been a shocking crime anyway, but it was made all the more so when it became clear that it had been perpetrated by two ten year old boys; Robert Thompson and Jon Venables.  The British tabloid media, looking for easy answers as to why this tragedy had occurred, settled on pinning the blame on movies, and on Child's Play 3 in particular.  I've written in other places about the fact that this narrative, which, 20 years later, remains the one thing most Brits know about Child's Play 3 was based on nothing, but that didn't stop it from having an effect.

The British tabloids mounted a campaign to ban 'video nasties' and there was a bill introduced in the House of Commons that would have required any film "unsuitable for home viewing" to be banned on video, effectively outlawing any film not suitable for children.  The bill didn't pass, but there was a censorious climate and both distributors and the British Board of Film Classification seemed nervous.  Child's Play 3 was withdrawn by its distributor.  Warner Brothers delayed the video release of Natural Born Killers and certificates for films like Reservoir Dogs,  True Romance and Bad Lieutenant were delayed.

Mikey shouldn't have been caught up in this controversy.  It had received an uncut 18 certificate in November 1992, but by the time of the Bulger murder and the surrounding moral panic it had still not been screened in the UK.  In a move that, as far as I can tell, was completely without precedent, the BBFC director James Ferman, in direct response to a story in the Daily Mail, demanded the return of Mikey's certificate, retroactively banning it in the wake of the Bulger murder.  Having never been resubmitted to the board Mikey remains, in effect, banned.  So let's take a look at the film behind this strange case of censorship.

Honestly, it's hard not to be disappointed.  Mikey is very much a bog standard slasher movie, with little to distinguish it beyond its very silly plot, which is riddled with holes you could drive a truck through.  The film opens with nine year old Mikey (Brian Bonsall) killing his parents.  The stupid starts pretty early.  Mikey kills his mother by turning on her hairdryer and throwing it in the bath, except he doesn't throw it IN the bath, she catches it... and still gets electrocuted.  I'm not sure how that works.  Then Mikey makes his father fall through a glass door by having him slip on marbles he's left on the floor before bashing his head in with a baseball bat.  It's a pretty grim sequence, but hard to take seriously because the mechanics aren't especially credible in either death.  This is also where, both in its structure and in the motives of its leading character (Mikey accuses his parents of not loving him any more) the film's main influence becomes clear: it's The Stepfather, with a nine year old instead of Terry O'Quinn.

Following this opening the film settles into its main plot, with Mikey being adopted by a couple of nice, white, middle class people (Mimi Craven and John Diehl).  How this happens without them ever having met him before is never addressed, nor is the fact that they're not given the full facts on Mikey's past (his adoption records are sealed, because, sure, that's a good way to start addressing psychological trauma).  Anyway, Mikey's a perfect angel; he loves his new parents, does well at school, getting on with his teacher Miss Gilder (Ashley Laurence, mis-credited in the titles as Ashley Lawrence).  He makes friends with Ben, the kid next door (Whitby Hertford) and develops a crush on Ben's older sister Jessie (Josie Bisset).

Obviously things start to seem off, but nothing extreme enough to raise any concerns unless you've seen the opening of the film (or, I don't know, been told the details before you adopted the kid).  It takes nearly an hour for the film to ramp up again, and when it does... it's kind of stupid.  Okay, so when he kicks a radio into a jacuzzi to electrocute Jessie's boyfriend there's probably not much the victim could do, but the other victims often have nobody to blame but themselves.  HE'S NINE.  Okay, he hits his adoptive mother's hand with a hammer, which, surely, is her cue to slap him with the other hand and then take the hammer from him.  He's nine, she's surely going to be able to overpower him.  This goes on and on.  Ashley Laurence's death is also pretty funny, because all she has to do is take a side step, but no, the idiot plot is in full swing by this point. 

It's something of a pity that the film all but collapses under the weight of its own ridiculousness, because there are things to recommend it.  Brian Bonsall doesn't have an easy job here, but actually he does pretty well as Mikey.  He's convincing in the early scenes when we're supposed to sense something under the surface when Mikey is playing nice and he's got a few chilling moments ("I'm watching Mikey's funniest home videos") before the ending sees him having to resort to nonsensical pre-kill one liners ("Miss Gilder you're the best teacher I've ever had, but there is one thing you never taught me... How to die!")

The adults also do pretty well, given the kind of film this is.  Diehl and Craven both come off as almost negligently unaware when it comes to some of Mikey's disturbing behavior, but that's the fault of the writing.  Acting wise, they do their job well enough, and Craven at least seems to be enjoying some of the silliness of her part.  Josie Bisset also has to battle some cringemaking dialogue, especially in her first scene, in which Mikey and Ben dupe her into giving Mikey mouth to mouth, but again, she's fine in her part, and more than capable of being the crush-worthy girl next door.  What the film really misses is a formidable final girl, probably because, since Mikey is nine, she'd kill him without any fuss.  It seems, for a while, that Ashley Laurence is being set up for this role, but it never pays off in the way you'd like it to.

You can see why, in the wake of the Bulger murder, this film would have given the UK censors pause.  Silly as it is, the fact that the central theme of a child murdering people would have meant that the contentious elements of the film could never have been cut around.  Today it looks quaint.  The violence isn't all that graphic, and is surprisingly infrequent until the last half hour.  Today the theme would be unlikely to trouble the BBFC as much as imitable techniques (the electrocutions) and a shot that clearly shows Bonsall in the same frame as a topless Mimi Craven.

Ultimately, Mikey is little more than a forgettable slasher, and it would likely have fallen even further into obscurity but for its unfortunate timing.  It has some interesting elements, but even Bonsall's solid performance does little to make a great case for lifting this one out of the basement in which it has spent the past 20 years.

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