Written by: Luca Bercovici, Jefery Levy
Directed by: Luca Bercovici
Starring: Lisa Pelikan, Peter Liapis, Michael Des Barres
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"And when his father died a horrible death, I was sure the curse had passed forever..."
Perhaps more than any other genre, horror has long leaned on marketing to make an impression. A golden age of enticing poster art begat an era of over-the-top exploitation ads, which in turn begat VHS box art, all with the capacity to wildly oversell a movie. My generation alone can spin many tales about leaving a rental store with high hopes inspired by a particularly bitching cover only to be met with disappointment once the tape began to play. Ghoulies sprung forth from this scene with a vengeanceóin fact, it may well have been its poster child, not so much because itís a disappointment but because its marketing painted a picture the film couldnít literally couldnít live up to until a late-minute reshoot.
Letís rewind a bit for the uninitiated who arenít aware that the filmís enduring image is a demon muppet emerging from a toilet, accompanied by a tag-line boldly promising ďTheyíll Get You In the End!Ē Impossible to miss on a video store shelf, the artwork no doubt coaxed rentals and bewilderment in equal measure once patrons discovered it represents about a second of the filmís screen time. Anyone familiar with B-movie maven Charles Band wonít be surprised to learn it was a calculated bit of misdirection that didnít take form until after the movie was in the can. While brainstorming the marketing campaign, someone conjured up the famous toilet ghoulieóthe only problem? No such scene actually existed in the film just yet and had to be inserted in post-production (in the end, as it were).
So, despite its promotion, Ghoulies isnít really about critters from the shitter. You could even argue that itís hardly about any critters at all since itís actually a generations-spanning tale about a warlock (Michael Des Barres) and his long lost son, Jonathan (Peter Liapis). As a child, Jonathan was rescued from becoming a ritual sacrifice at the hands of his father but eventually inherits the old manís mansion, all thanks to a protective groundskeeper (Jack Nance) who has sworn to shield him from the family legacy. Apparently, his grand plan is to just hope Jonathan doesnít go digging around in the cellars and dungeons of the old place, where all of his fatherís old sorcery gear rests. Intrigued, Jonathan begins to dabble in black magic, much to the dismay of his girlfriend (Lisa Pelikan)óand much to the delight of his party animal friends, who have no clue what theyíre really in for when he suggests they start to cast spells.
You spend a lot of time wondering where the ghoulies are in Ghoulies; we glimpse them briefly during the opening would-be sacrifice before Jonathan eventually summons them to do his bidding later in the movie. In the meantime, youíre left with a movie thatís still positively weird and goofy as hell: in addition to the titular monsters, there are breakdancing interludes, little people serving as minions, oblivious doofuses, a zombie, wizard battles, an obviously plastic trident, and more. Sure, thereís not an abundance of turd-demons popping out of toilets, but thatís barely the wildest thing that happens here, anyway. Why worry about what you donít have when you can enjoy guys shooting eye-lasers at each other?
For years, I have to confess that Iíve not held Ghoulies in the highest regard for the bait-and-switch (plus, its first, superior sequel casts a long shadow). After revisiting it now, however, its inane madness is too infectious to ignore: say what you want about Ghoulies, but something is happening during every last one of its 81 minutes, whether itís a bug-eyed warlock levitating the mother of his child (via framing that keeps her lower half just out of the cameraís sight) or a bunch of puppets terrorizing slack-jawed party-goers (among the ranks: Mariska Hartigay!). Thereís rarely a dull moment in Ghoulies, and its scripted inanity is compounded by a threadbare budget that results in cheap sets and props, save for the creatures themselves. A fine early triumph of effects wizard John Carl Beuchler, the ghoulies are imaginatively designed and bursting with just as much personality as their human counterparts.
Speaking of which, this is a delightful bunch thatís sketched broadly and performed even more broadly. Theyíre the sorts of performances that stray close enough to the edge of camp without broaching it: Ghoulies is obviously a joke, but itís an earnest one with an expected assortment of loveable losers, stoners, and overcompensating badasses delivering cornball dialogue with complete conviction (ďThey call me Dick, but you can call meÖDick!Ē is maybe the best one-line summary of Ghoulies). Later films like Night of the Demons, Witchtrap, and Troll 2 may have refined the ingredients here, but Ghoulies helped to formulate the charming, tongue-in-cheek, party movie flavor that would become a staple on 80s video store shelves (though it must be noted that none of its successors climax with Jack Nance rescuing a dude from his undead dad).
While Luca Bercovici is the director here, the most obvious creative force is Band, and Ghoulies is like his fucking origin story. One of the first releases from Empire Pictures, this film practically charted the course for Bandís obsessions over the next three decade: diminutive creatures, dwarves, wizards, animated dolls, etc. If it appears in Ghoulies, chances are Band made at least a half-dozen movies featuring it at some point during his reigns at Empire and Full Moon. Truly, few people have wackier auteurist stamps than Band, a filmmaker who certainly passes the auteur eye test: you know a Charles Band production when you see one, and Ghoulies is certainly no exception to the rule. Hell, it is the rule, right down to that infamous marketing campaign.
One of the great hucksters of the B-movie scene, Band carved a niche in which heís still firmly entrenched, and Ghoulies was one of his earliest successes. For that reason, itís a title worthy of the Scream Factory treatment. Debuting on Blu-ray on a double feature alongside Ghoulies II, the film benefits from a high-definition presentation upgrade in addition to a plethora of supplements. A commentary with Bercovici headlines, while 30 a minute retrospective features interviews from Band, Des Barres, make-up artist John Vulich, and composer Richard Band. The original theatrical trailer and a still gallery round out the extras for the first film (the sequel, too, features its own set of supplements).
And, yes, the original cover art remains intactóno need to flush away a perfectly indelible image, obviously.
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