Wednesday 11 May 2022

Ghoulies (Luca Bercovici, 1985) Review

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I got an idea – let's do a ritual.” A Lucifer-worshipping cult, laser eye battles, slimy little green monsters that look like mangled turds with teeth popping out of toilets, and gratuitous indoor use of sunglasses? It can only be Ghoulies...

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No, wait! I need to dismiss the spirit.” / “So do I – where's the bathroom?” The first in a succession of Gremlins cash-ins, which latterly included Munchies (1987), Hobgoblins (1988), and the Critters franchise (1986-2019), Ghoulies begins with the attempted human sacrifice of a baby by his own Devil-crazed father Malcom (all the most evil-minded individuals have names like office drones). Spirited away by Wolfgang (Jack Nance, Eraserhead), an acolyte who raises the child, Jonathan Graves (Peter Liapis) grows up to inherit Malcom's dusty old mansion and soon discovers something unknown within him bubbling to the surface.

When I walked into that room I saw someone I don't even know. I saw … a stranger.” Clearing out the house with his girlfriend Rebecca (Lisa Pelikan, A.W.O.L.), a trip into the web-strewn basement unveils the sinister history of the building – but also taps into an hereditary affinity for the dark arts. Celebrating their new home, Jonathan and Rebecca invite their gaggle of thinly-sketched friends to party: there's terminal stoner and sunglasses aficionado Mike (Scott Thomson, Twister), unfashionably weird randy menace Mark aka 'Toad Boy' (Ralph Seymour, Rain Man), rampant ladies man Dick (Keith Joe Dick, Cop Out), thankless role in a red dress Donna (Marisa Hargitay, Law & Order S.V.U.), and a couple of others with even less character development than a postage stamp. Sufficiently lubricated, Jonathan suggests a fun old time that was so common in 1980s horror flicks – dabbling in ritualistic mumbo jumbo to ill effect.

The ritual is fraught with danger, Master.” Having seemingly failed to churn up the depths of evil for shits and giggles, the gang disband before Jonathan can sweep away any residual bad mojo, which naturally decides to materialise the moment they've jogged-on out of the basement. With the 'evil one' using his curiosity for its own ends, Jonathan quits school to refurbish the house full-time, only to wind up mostly spending his time indulging in his new fancy: candle-lit dagger-waggling in ceremonial cloaks, which is quite the scene to walk in on for Rebecca. Just imagine what she would have thought if she'd seen him chin-wagging with his newly summoned ghoulie minions.

I got sidetracked.” Hell-bent on exploring his newfound interests and abilities, Jonathan conjures up more helpers in the bickering forms of Grizzle and Greedigut (Peter Risch and Tamara De Treaux), and seemingly tries-it-on with a bit of the old Satanic seed-sewing, only for Rebecca to cotton-on before jogging-on … but how long can she resist his nefarious charms, and is Jonathan really quite so in-charge around here?

Sounds like Toad Boy's on the attack.” Much like 1986's Critters, Ghoulies (the first film to ride the cash-in wave of Joe Dante's 1984 monster comedy) was originally conceived prior to the theatrical release of Gremlins, in this case in 1983 as a different project under the title 'Beasties'. Produced by Empire Pictures and Charles Band (he of numerous low budget genre franchises such as Puppet Master and Trancers) on a budget of $5.5m – can you imagine anyone splashing out that much cash on a flick like this these days?! – the film is a visually impressive piece with oodles of atmosphere and slightly more of the titular monsters on-screen than some reviews might have you expect. By way of comparison, the original Puppet Master (1989) featured nowhere near as much puppet action as you'd expect (admittedly on a comparatively far lower budget), while Puppet Master II (1990) ramped-up the good stuff. Ghoulies sits somewhere in-between, there's just enough to not leave you disappointed, but not enough to leave you fully entertained.

No! I am the Master. I own them – and I now own you!” Written by Luca Bercovici and Jefery Levy, the patchwork of human characters tend to flounder on so little material to work with. Beyond Jonathan and to a lesser extent Rebecca, the supporting players turn up for fun times with drugs and rumpy pumpy and nothing else – but even that is hampered by the film's PG-13 rating, trimmed from what must have been a fairly tame R. There's some gruesome-enough wounds scattered about the third act, but it never feels like quite enough chaos is being unleashed. That said, the film isn't without some memorable moments: the sight of possessed bodies wriggling across the floor like rag dolls on a string is particularly creepy, while the skeletal resurrection of a rotten corpse kicks a whole lot of arse in so few seconds. As for the diminutive monsters themselves, they're charmingly cheap puppets, snarling as they drip gooey 'KY Jelly' slime and gnash their prickly chompers. The rating may constrain their exploits, but the 1980s 'plastic fantastic' aesthetic means that they're always fun when on-screen.

Bad manners, dude.” Perhaps best known for its poster image – that of a slimy, green Ghoulie menacing us from the confines of a toilet – the movie caused a mild controversy as parents complained that their children, having glimpsed the image, were too scared to use the shitter. It truly was a more innocent time then, as no such pearl-clutching was afforded to 2013's Bad Milo. The image, ingeniously attention-grabbing, gazed down on you from the shelves of the horror section in your local video rental store – I myself remember looking at the box and wondering what sort of movie it might be, such was the charm of the lurid artwork used to hook-in viewers and hypnotise budding horror film fanatics. Indeed, a brief shot of that particular Ghoulie popping out from a pristine white toilet was filmed and inserted into the movie to make sure audience expectations were efficiently sated.

Where are your Gods now? They too are mine.” Let down by its paper-thin characters and somewhat lacking monster action, Ghoulies is nonetheless handsomely shot by Mac Ahlberg (Re-Animator, Chained Heat), and doesn't stick around long enough to belabour its weaknesses. Gremlins and Critters kick seven shades of shite out of it by comparison, but there's many, many worse mini monster movies out there. It may not be some overlooked classic of the era, but it was certainly good enough to justify its own cult following and four-movie franchise, one that can still appeal to fans of this kind of material. There's a certain, somewhat ethereal, reason why the 1980s genre movie scene wields such a sway over filmmakers and fans alike to this day, and Ghoulies manages to fit in nicely as a beautifully photographed, quirky curio.

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