Written and Directed by: Brian Peck
Starring: Sean Astin, James Karen, Michael Bower, Dana Ashbrook, and Clu Gulager
Reviewed by: Wes R.
“Now, woah, wait a minute...this isn’t that dumb story about the time you and your friends found
that pirate ship in an old cave?”
that pirate ship in an old cave?”
Though (as of this writing) the sub-genre of the horror anthology is currently dead, at one time, these films were immensely popular and in great demand. The idea of combining several smaller stories into one film is certainly a novel one. Like all sub-genres, the anthology’s popularity has come in waves: studios like Amicus and AIP made anthologies a big business during the 1970s and thanks to the success of George Romero’s Creepshow and television shows like “Tales From the Darkside”, “The Hitchhiker”, and “Tales From the Crypt”, the anthology featured a slight comeback in the mid-late 80s. Films like After Midnight, The Monster Club, and From a Whisper to a Scream sprang out of nowhere to give audiences their own collections of bite-sized doses of thrills and chills. One late entry in the anthology resurgence was the 1991 effort, The Willies, directed by Brian Peck.
With a crackling fire nearby, a trio of kids set out for a night of s’mores and camping adventure. Alone in a tent, they begin telling each other gross urban legend stories out of boredom. Each swears that their story is really true because it happened to someone they know, to someone who is related to someone they know, or to someone who knows someone they know (as of course, all supposedly true urban legends are). They take turns telling a story that we the viewers get to watch: the first, about a kid encountering a demon-like monster while in the school bathroom, and the second about a kid whose peculiar bug obsession gets more than a little out of hand. Three shorter segments, none over five minutes in length, precede the two main stories. The first features an obese lady who discovers the piece of greasy fried chicken she just bit into is actually a batter-dipped and deep-fried rat, the second has an elderly man reluctantly riding the local amusement park’s haunted house ride (with particularly fatal results), and the third shows what allegedly happened when an absent-minded grandmother put her beloved pet poodle in the microwave to dry after a bath.
The Willies is a fairly amateurish production but I think its enjoyable on a certain cheese level. It would also help if I were twelve again. The film moves along at a great pace and is never dull, but it definitely targets a younger age range. The stories never really achieve any sort of scares, but are fun in a kind of TV anthology sort of way. Though the tone is fairly kid-friendly, the material is decidedly darker than your average episode of “Goosebumps” or “Are You Afraid of the Dark”. I imagine if Alvin Schwartz’s “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” books were ever made into a movie, the result would probably be along the lines of The Willies. I firmly believe that horror anthologies are only as strong as their weakest story, and this is especially true here. Each story is amusing in its own way, but the weakest is easily the second. It’s still a pretty interesting segment but is fairly overlong and uneventful. The first segment comes off the best, but despite a very good design, its snarling signature monster looks far too rubbery to elicit any serious shivers.
What I found slightly refreshing about the film, is also probably it’s biggest drawback: That it is essentially a horror film for kids. Horror was hot during the 1980s and early 90s and filmmakers during this time were trying to target a wide array of different audiences with a wide array of different films. Many horror films of the 70s give off the sleazy, grimy look and feel that they were funded and created by coke-crazed madmen. I’m not saying that’s necessarally bad, as the 70s produced some of the greatest horror films ever made. However, it’s certainly a welcome change of pace to see a film that is mainly intended for younger horror fans (possibly directed by someone who is a parent himself), which are largely neglected by mainstream fare. A film like The Willies would likely have never been released during the 70s. I think with a slightly higher budget, some of the bad acting and sub-par production issues could have been alleviated.
The film’s acting is pretty horrendous, even by cheesy kids film standards. Even Sean Astin (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy) seriously under-performs here, and it’s not surprising that he rarely mentions the film in interviews these days. Astin’s career got off to a great start with the Steven Spielberg-produced blockbuster adventure, The Goonies. You really wonder how he ended up in a low-budget horror film like this. He’s completely cardboard, and almost sounds like he’s reading his lines from a teleprompter. Genre veteran James Karen (Return of the Living Dead parts 1 and 2) turns in a fun performance as a rather unusual, but helpful school janitor. Another great genre vet, Clu Gulager (Ken Walsh, for all you Nightmare on Elm Street 2 fanatics out there) is completely wasted in a role that amounts to not much more than a cameo. “Twin Peaks” fans should look quick for cameos by actors Dana Ashbrook (Bobby) and Kimmy Robertson (Lucy) toward the beginning of the movie. The most bizarre cameos, though, (and I almost hate to spoil this) are by Kirk Cameron and Tracey Gold who reprise their Mike and Carol Seaver characters from the television show “Growing Pains” during a nightmare sequence. It’s not so bizarre when you learn that writer and director Brian Peck was a fairly busy actor before this film, and had a recurring role on “Growing Pains”. Fans of the early 90s Nickelodeon show, “Salute Your Shorts” will instantly recognize actor Michael Bowen (who portrayed “Donkeylips”) in one of his earliest film roles.
The music score by Randy Miller is suitably campy to the production, but offers a few nice touches here and there. The opening titles piece tries very hard to sound like Danny Elfman’s “Tales From the Crypt” theme. Writing-wise, there isn’t much to discuss. The writing serves its purpose as a “Tales From the Crypt”-lite for the younger crowd, and features a great deal of immature, but kid-friendly humor. Strangely, the script’s most memorable moments come right at the very beginning, during the short “pre-stories” that are told before the main two segments. After watching the movie and talking to friends or co-workers about it, you’ll be more apt to discuss the first three segments than the latter two. They are near-perfect portrayals of the urban legends on which they are originally based. Speaking of the urban legends, basically all the stories in the film are the kind you grew up hearing (and believing) on the playground, in the lunchroom, or at sleepovers before you and your friends decided to try the “Bloody Mary” thing with the bathroom mirror. It is because of this level of honest, nostalgic fun that the film proudly presents throughout that I’m recommending it as at least a one-time viewing for horror fans. The Willies isn’t likely to quench a hardened horror fan’s thirst for graphic death scenes or honest scares, but if you’re looking for lighter fare to watch with younger cousins or siblings, this film is ideal. Rent it!
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