Teens-In-Peril continues to be one of the most popular horror sub-genres, and adolescent mayhem is not limited to masked killers knocking off stereotypical characters one by one. Let’s face it, teenage life can be scary. With fears ranging from school exams, to dating, to the question of what to do after graduation, filmmakers use countless tropes to transfer those nightmares to the screen. From old-school classics to modern, meta takes, teen horror spans the spectrum, focusing not only on movies aimed at a younger audience, but also those dark dramas that feature teen characters. This go-round, I’m taking a look at the horror-comedy My Boyfriend’s Back.
The DVD and VHS artwork for My Boyfriend’s Back couldn’t have displayed a more appropriate tagline. “The comedy that proves true love never dies” being paired with the ’90s neon artwork succinctly sums up the film’s premise and tone to a T. In the movie, the lead character Johnny Dingle returns from the grave to take the love of his life, Missy McCloud, to the senior prom.
My Boyfriend’s Back stars Andrew Lowery (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Traci Lind (Fright Night Part 2) as the pair of teenage leads. The supporting cast includes Edward Hermann (The Lost Boys), Mary Beth Hurt (The Exorcism of Emily Rose), Jay O. Sanders (Kiss the Girls), Danny Zorn (Blast From the Past), and Cloris Leachman (Young Frankenstein), as well as a roster of well-known actors in bit roles: Matthew Fox (TV’s Party of Five), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Twister), and Matthew McConaughey (Dazed and Confused). The movie was directed by Bob Balaban from a screenplay by Dean Lorey.
My Boyfriend’s Back opens with a series of Creepshow-like comic panels detailing the backstory of Johnny‘s crush on Missy. A brief sequence of Johnny‘s everyday life culminates into a humorous scene of sexual fantasy (an element that appears throughout the film, each time with increasing zombie infused absurdity). but the script switches gears to the night of Johnny‘s death. The accident takes place during a botched, fake robbery of the convenience store where Missy works. The setup is simple: Johnny and his best friend Eddie will stage a gunpoint robbery in which Johnny will save the day. In doing so, he will look like a hero and win Missy‘s heart. Unfortunately, a real robber shows up and Johnny is shot dead. Before taking his last breath, Johnny asks Missy to the prom and… she agrees.
The crux of the story is in place as Johnny comes back from the dead to follow through with his dying wish. After the setup, the remainder of My Boyfriend’s Back is full of zombie-related jokes and gags as Johnny must overcome several hurdles to achieve his goal of taking Missy to the prom. Standing in his way are Missy‘s on-again-off-again jock boyfriend Buck, the fact that his body is decaying at a rapid pace, school bullies, a scientist who wants Johnny for his own twisted agenda, and a mob of angry townsfolk.
The theme of prejudice (albeit zombie prejudice) is explored from various angles in My Boyfriend’s Back. The obvious is through eyes of Johnny, but the filmmakers also focus on how the other characters are affected by and deal with the hate and harassment. Most notably is Missy, who is in the precarious position of being in love with someone people think she shouldn’t be with. Throughout the course of the film, Missy is called names such as “tramp” and “zombie slut”. There are others who stand by Johnny through thick and thin and want to help. Johnny‘s friend Eddie, who after discovering Johnny eating a classmate, warns him that “colleges look at this kind of thing“, and Johnny‘s own parents go as far as bringing bodies home for their son to eat.
Of course, all of this is to be taken in a humorous, tongue-in-cheek kind of way. Most of the comedic material in My Boyfriends’ Back would fall flat if not for the cast. Traci Lind and Andrew Lowery are perfect in the leading rolls. The two actors play off each other in ways that show a lot of chemistry as the two characters navigate ways to make their unusual relationship work. Lind has some of the best lines of the movie, and she delivers them in an appropriately deadpan, awestruck kind of way. The scenes with Johnny‘s parents are entertaining and fun as both of them show their dedication to protecting their son’s zombie lifestyle. As Johnny‘s mom, Mary Beth Hurt’s performance is reminiscent of her role in Parents (1989), also directed by Bob Balaban.
Balaban obviously has a knack for this type of dark humor. The direction and set pieces of My Boyfriend’s Back are often sitcom-like in their simplicity, which works very much on the film’s behalf. The look and setting has a quaint, small-town feel, which, when paired with the sitcom beats, lends a Leave it to Beaver type of wholesomeness to the story. The clean and defined look of the film pairs well with the frequently inter-cut comic book panels.
As for the horror elements, My Boyfriend’s Back doesn’t offer up much in the way of scares or bloodshed. Instead, the movie rests securely on a PG-13 rating. What little bit of gore there is comes from several comedic set pieces featuring the toll of being a zombie has on Johnny’s body. Imagine the story being “body horror lite”, and you’ll get the gist. The overall bloodless scenarios are regulated to things like Johnny‘s ear coming off as he and Missy are making out in his car and a dream that devolves into a sequence of various body parts falling off.
Ultimately, the arc of My Boyfriend’s Back is the teen love story between Johnny and Missy. The themes of sacrifice and the lengths people will go to for each other are paramount. For Johnny and Missy to be together, they must overcome the insurmountable odds placed against them. In doing so, the two of them will (for the most part) change the town’s unanimous opinion of the undead. Putting all horror-comedy elements aside, at its core the movie delivers several moral messages that most people will relate to on some level. Most impressively, a meaningful parable emerges through all of the silliness and climaxes at the appropriately themed “I’m in Heaven” senior prom.