Friday, March 10, 2017

The Willies

The Willies (1990)
Dir. and written by Brian Peck
Starring Sean Astin, Jason Horst, Joshua Miller, James Karen, Ian Fried, Michael Bower, Clu Gulager

THE WILLIES is a confusing mix of the comfortingly familiar and the exotically bizarre, which is probably the highest compliment I could possibly imagine paying to a PG-13 horror anthology from 1990 directed by the guy who played Scuz in RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (Brian Peck). It begins exactly the way you’d expect, given all that: with a low-rent Are You Afraid of The Dark knockoff starring Sean Astin. And for awhile, it keeps giving you what you’d expect: some silly, awkward horror-comedy sketches, some game child actors being real earnest and dorky, a little bit of gnarly stop-motion monster. But slowly, perhaps without even entirely realizing it, it starts to break the rules and go off in stranger and more disturbing directions, eventually turning into some kind of crazy goddam David Cronenberg nightmare. Not in terms of tone, or even of gore; it maintains its genial, spooky-fun kid’s movie vibe fairly consistently. But for what is essentially structured as a kids horror movie, it wanders into some pretty dark territory.

I’m not sure it’s aware of that fact, though. It certainly starts innocently enough: three kids --Sean Astin (BORDERLANDS), Jason Horst (THIS BOY’S LIFE) and Joshua Miller (COMMUNION)-- are camping out in their backyard. They’re horsing around, trying to gross each other out and telling tasteless stories. To give you an idea of what the movie is obviously shooting for: it’s possible this is a sequel to THE GOONIES. I’m serious; Astin’s character is named “Michael” just like his GOONIES character, and when he says he knows a good story, one of the kids asks if he’s just going to tell them about that time he and his friends “found the pirate ship in that old cave.” But if he was, he decides to go in a different direction.

We warm up with a very two short tales: In the first (featuring a brief and inexplicable cameo from Twin Peaks alum Dana Asbrook), a woman finds a rat in her fried chicken in the broadest way possible. And that’s pretty much the whole thing. In the second, an old man (Bill Erwin, whose long career as a bit player dates back to 1941*) dies of a heart attack on a haunted amusement park ride (comedian Doug Benson makes an early appearance as a zombie, and we make time for another inexplicable Twin Peaks cameo, this time Kimmy Robertson). Both Wikipedia and IMDB also list a third vignette, which finds a woman microwaving her poodle, but if it was ever in there, it wasn’t in the version I watched, despite a credit for “exploding poodle effects” in the closing credits (the version I found runs 87 minutes; IMDB lists the runtime as 92 minutes, so maybe that’s the disconnect? What is this, some kind of dog lover fan edit?)

(EDIT 3/29: Longtime friend of the site and American hero Griff did manage to find this footage, which is here. Like most of the movie, nothing really happens during most of it, but it still manages to be bizarrely cringe-y and unpleasant. More interesting, though, is that it looks like it's introduced by some kind of weird muppet, who seems to be discussing the later "Gordy Belcher" story afterwords. What the fuck? Is there some kind of alternate version with a muppet framing story instead of Sean Astin?)

This appears to be a frame from the BANNED VIGNETTE THAT THE INTERNET DIDN'T WANT YOU TO SEE! A couple websites have this or similar images which do seem legit, but I still can't find any of the actual footage.  

All this is before the credits. At about 11 minutes in, the credits finally finish rolling and we move on to the first of two courses. This one concerns young Danny (Ian Fried, holy cow, Rocky Jr. from ROCKY III in his final role!), a bespectacled kid mercilessly --and I mean mercilessly-- taunted by children and teachers alike until his life is a living hell. I’m not just talking about pushing him around or stealing his lunch money or the teacher calling him “the biggest baby I’ve ever seen,” although they do that stuff too. I’m talking about stuff like this:

Yup, he’s suspended twenty fucking feet in the air using a complicated system of pulleys McGuyver’d up from a fire hose. Although I am opposed to bullying anyone who was in the cast of ROCKY III, and, to a lesser extent, any child, I think these bullies probably earned the level of self-satisfaction which is evident from this hi-five:

And lest you think this is just a few bad apples, this is the scene when an adult finally stumbles upon the poor suspended lad:

Those are not the bullies, those are just curious passerbys. Real helpful, guys. The only person in this school who seems to be anything less than a complete piece of human garbage is the friendly janitor (James Karen, TIME WALKER, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD), who at least helps poor Danny down and offers him some solace.

Anyway, things are going pretty bad for Danny already. Arguably, they’re going almost unbelievably badly, like to a comically exaggerated extent. But as we learned in 2016, just because things have turned into a grotesque cartoonish parody of what a horrible world would look like if we didn’t know better, doesn’t mean things can’t get a lot worse. And this fucker Danny must really have sacrificed the wrong thing to the wrong god at some point, because on a routine trip to the bathroom, he discovers that his school is equipped with a stop-motion monster who likes to hang out in a bathroom stall. And when his grouchy teacher (Kathleen Freeman, “Stout girl on elevated train, uncredited” in NAKED CITY, “Microwave Marge” in GREMLINS 2) irately accompanies him to the scene, she’s summarily devoured by the bad-tempered critter.

Here’s where things get dark, because instead of being traumatized by the messy death of his teacher, this turn of events gives Danny an idea. He ticks his bullies into the bathroom, and then locks the door behind them and ignores their anguished pleas to be set free as they’re ripped to bloody shreds. How mean is THE WILLIES? Mean enough to make fun of some poor nine-year-old with a mullet and a Iron Maiden shirt for peeing himself right before he meets a gristly death at the hands of a vicious monster. Oh, look at the little baby peeing himself when faced with his own savage death by dismemberment at the tender age of nine. Mean enough that our hero stands right outside the bathroom door with a stoic look on his face, listening to the frantic pleas of a little kid begging for his life... and ignores him, ambling away only after he’s certain his little peers are done for.

And in the opinion of THE WILLIES, these little bastards deserved it. Because there’s a little twist here: remember that nice janitor who befriended Danny back when he was a victim and not an aspiring school shooter? Well, turns out he’s not quite what he seems: As the camera pans up to the school’s hidden crawlspace --you know, the adult-sized crawlspace that all building in the world are required by law to have--  we see the monster pull a human mask over his face, and whaddaya know, it’s the friendly janitor! Apparently, his game is to befriend misfits and then murder their elementary school tormentors. And this is not just an isolated incident -- we learn that a few month later, the guy moved and got a job at a different school. And when a panicked mom shows up worried about her hellion son’s disappearance, he tells her the kid is a bad apple who needs to be “taught a lesson”** but that he hasn’t seen him… while squeezing blood out of a set of children’s clothes.

(Also, and this seems worth mentioning, the principal of Danny’s school is Clu Gulager. Also pretty harsh.)

So, anyway, holy, fuck, here’s a movie which explicitly supports child murder, and we’re not even halfway done.

There are only two long-format tales here, and Danny’s tale of elementary school brutality was only about 30 minutes, which, combined with the two little pre-credit vignettes, puts the film right at about 40 minutes. Bu that’s only half the terror. The remaining runtime -- a little over forty minutes-- will be devoted to our second subject of the evening. And this is where things get fucking weird.

Young Danny tricked his bullies into being viciously butchered while he ignored their pleas for mercy, but he’s fucking Nelson Mandela compared to our new protagonist, a young fellow by the name of Gordy Belcher (Michael Bowers, who once apparently played a character named “Donkeylips”). Gordy seems at first like a disgusting, pathetic, dim-witted friendless loser, but don’t be fooled. He’s much, much worse than that. Instead, Gordy belongs to a particular elite in horror movies along with the likes of Shelly from FRIDAY THE 13th PART III, and, most iconically, Alan from RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP: characters who at first seem like merely irritating, pitiable misfits, but gradually turn out to be egregiously repellant in every imaginable way, and sometimes several ways which would be impossible to imagine without actually seeing it.

Such is certainly the case of young Gordy.  

Gordy is indeed a friendless loser, but as we shall soon see, that status is very, very richly deserved. He’s introduced to us sneaking past a “danger! Keep out!” sign into old farmer Spivey’s lot to steal a jar full of Spivey’s special manure. He almost gets away with it undetected, until Spivey (Ralph Drischell, TAPS) blows a hole in the fence next to his head with a shotgun blast which might be interpreted as a warning shot. He fat-shames Gordy a little and you start to feel sorry for the poor kid for a brief moment until he responds with even less grace. But wait, why the fuck is this kid stealing manure, anyway? And hey, uh, no one seems to be mentioning it, but farmer Spivey’s yard has a wheelbarrow full of gigantic carrots sitting there, literally as big as a man’s arm.

Yes, it seems that in his obsessive experiments in defiance of God’s laws, Farmer Spivey has stumbled upon a manure formula which is so powerful it can grow vegetables to enormous size. So little wonder he’s upset that Gordy’s stealing it, the kid can sell it to his competitors and make a fort… wait, actually that’s not Gordy’s plan. In fact, we next catch him in another heist, this time shoplifting some…nail polish remover? What the fuck is he up to? It’s been awhile since I saw Breaking Bad but IIRC correctly manure and nail polish remover don’t add up to meth, so that’s out. What’s going on here?

Our first little hint comes when Gordy observes a pest control truck stop suddenly and fling its giant novelty-sized roof fly at a screaming passerby. For the first time, he seems genuinely delighted, laughing to an uncomfortably hysterical extent. When he returns home, we understand why: Gordy loves flies. In fact, the manure is intended not as a fertilizer, but as a lure so he can trap flies in a glass jar he keeps in his bedroom window. I guess he’s keeping them as pets? But why is he taking them down into the basement now?

Well, I’ll tell you why. Gordy’s idea of a good time is to walk down into his seedy basement with a look of dispassionate concentration, turn on some melancholy classical music, take the flies, render them unconscious with a dose of nail polish remover, remove their wings, and then -by the hundreds-- glue them into elaborately detailed dioramas, including an intricate castle siege set, a church funeral, and a 50’s-style  diner. I know this phrase has been overused to the point of meaninglessness, but what the actual fuck?! Words truly cannot adequately communicate to you just how fucking creepy this is. I mean, this kid Gordy Belcher is an up-and-coming serial killer for sure. Heck, the person who made these terrifyingly detailed micro-scale models for the movie is probably a serial killer just by virtue of having to make those props.

Gordy’s parents (Mike Pniewski, Madam Secretary, and Suzanne Goddard Smythe, infrequent actor but prolific casting director) maintain a veneer of normalcy for a few brief minutes during dinner, but it quickly becomes apparent that they’re very well aware how bizarre and disturbing this behavior is, which just makes Gordy’s obsessive, affect-free refusal to back down all the more unnerving. Dad seems content to just mock his son, but take a look at mom’s reaction when, in the middle of their conversation, Gordy stops to catch a fly in his dad’s beer:

There’s parental concern in those eyes, yes. But also genuine fucking terror.

Meanwhile on TV, director Brian Peck (RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD) interviews farmer Spivey about his manure, confirming it turns vegetables giant. I’m not sure why they waited so long to deliver this obvious expository information in the most ungainly possible way, but I can confirm that definitely, for sure, early Millennial Nu-Metal superstars Korn took their name from the news microphone in this movie:

Anyway, tensions increase at the dinner table as it becomes increasingly clear that Gordy is fucking mentally deranged. His mom confronts him with a jar full of dessicated fly corpses that he hid like a god damn heroine addict, and his dad shouts that this obsession has got to stop. It honestly plays like an addiction intervention, except that --and I cannot stress this enough-- Gordy is addicted to catching flies and creating bizarre elaborate macabre art projects with their corpses, a hobby so intensely unnerving that I would wholeheartedly endorse its immediate criminalization to be enforced, at a minimum, by three consecutive death sentences.

Of course, Gordy is not going to stop, because he’s a fucking psychopath. To whit: he wakes up in the night to see the TV is showing footage of flies, and talking to him. And he finds his own fly-covered corpse in the refrigerator. So yeah, things not going well.

What makes this infinitely more disturbing is that, I swear, the movie in no way changes tone to acknowledge that this is not just a spooky kid’s romp anymore. In fact, the very next scene returns to the movie’s gross-out opening, with Gordy tricking a cute little girl into eating cookies with flies baked into them like raisins. But this is THE WILLIES, so nothing is ever as simple as it should be -- the interaction begins with the kids rejecting Gordy, who responds with an earnest monologue about how the only reason he’s so mean to them is that nobody ever gives him a chance. Finally, the character starts to make a little sense as a stock horror type -- he is just a sensitive kid who finds himself rejected by everyone (farmer Spivey, this little girl, his own parents) because of his odd ways. While his hobby is still terrifying beyond all words, you can’t help but feel a little guilty for judging this poor kid. The girl seems genuinely chagrined, and apologetically accepts his offer of a cookie... only to find that he’s played a cruel trick! She vomits up the fly parts on the ground  while he laughs maniacally at her. What a little sociopath!

It freaks me out just looking at Gordy's wretched, emotionless face, so here's a picture of Sean Astin and friends from the opening sequence instead.

Now, this is a horror film, so you know by now that somehow Gordy is gonna end up ironically punished for his aberrant ways. That much, at least, seems certain. But credit THE WILLIES with this -- Gordy’s behavior is so far outside the realm of normal human experience that predicting exactly where this story is going seems utterly impossible, which is a profound rarity in genre films (or at any rate, genre films which have at least some level of baseline competence -- not so fast, MIRROR MIRROR 2.) How can we guess what the movie’s going to do, when it’s already composed of things that no normal movie in its right mind would ever turn into a plot? We’ve got a lot of pieces in play here -- flies, parents, mean kids, magic manure, Farmer Spivey, miniature models with animal corpses, contaminated baked goods -- and obviously that’s the brew our final comeuppance will arise from. But even considering these pieces, I doubt anyone could correctly predict that (SPOILERS) the movie would end with flies lured by Farmer Spivey’s magic manure growing to human proportions, sneaking into Gordy’s bedroom, and ripping his fucking arms off.

So yeah, THE WILLIES is really fucking weird. Don’t get me wrong, weird is not the same as good, or even interesting. As much as I was perversely fascinated by the disaffected, sociopathic nightmare that is Gordy’s life, there’s absolutely no justification in the world for spending 40 minutes on it, and, it goes without saying, most of the acting (especially the child acting, and it’s mostly child acting) is absolutely wretched (though in a somewhat charming, over-emoting 1980’s sort of way). It does have a bit of solid stop-motion monster in there, but mostly it’s exactly as incident-free as its estimated budget of 0 dollars would suggest. This isn’t one you watch for the goods. But if you’re in the market for weird… Good Lord, as far as works of art which are superficially so very deeply familiar and yet functionally so utterly alien go, this has to be one of the most startling I’ve ever seen. I doubt very strongly that this was the intent of anyone involved here, but that’s what makes it all the more special: undermining expectations intentionally tends to result in rather prosaic reversals. Undermining expectations by trying to turn bizarre ideas into a entirely generic effort, however, has the power to take us genuinely expected places. THE WILLIES isn’t good, but it’s definitely not what you expect.

And yes, I made it entirely though a review of a movie called THE WILLIES --which features three adolescent boys in a tent-- without making a single dick joke. You’re welcome.

*You know him as Sid Fields on Seinfeld, though.

**You can learn a lot of lessons from being brutally dismembered by a supernatural predator.

Good Kill Hunting

Catch a Tingling, Terrifying, Terminal Case of… (and yes, that is the most STD-influenced tagline of all time, even worse than THE JITTERS's similar "it's a feeling you'll never loose. Once you get 'em, you just can't shake 'em."
No Williams of any kind.
Anthology, creature feature,
RUDY was still three years away when this came out, so Sean Astin wasn’t a household name yet
Clu Gulager. Maybe James Karen?
None, PG-13
None, the movie is about children for fuck’s sake
Giant Fly attack!
No, unless you think that was a real Zombie in the opening, which is arguable
Gordy is absolutely one of the most mentally disturbed fictional characters of all time
Man into stop-motion monster and back. Small things into very large things.
Nah, unless you wanna count Danny listening to his friends die from behind a door.
Children are the real monsters.

More like a C+. Too uneventful to be good, exactly, but too weird to ignore.


  1. Oh man, I saw part of this movie as a kid, I remember the old guy dying, and most distinctly I remember the old lady microwaving her dog, strange that it was cut out of the version you watch.

    I don't remember the rest, but just reading about it frankly makes me feel ill, what a freaky movie.

    Here's the old lady scene though by the way.

  2. Hey, thanks Griff! And with that, I have closure.

  3. Also "Donkeylips" was a character from the 90s live action Nickelodeon show Salute Your Shorts.