Wednesday, October 11, 2017


Ghoulies (1984 -- US premier 1985)
Dir. Luca Bercovici
Written by Luca Bercovici and Jefery [sic] Levy
Starring Peter Liapis, Lisa Pelikan, Michael Des Barres, Jack Nance

For most people, the sentence, “1984’s GHOULIES is a landmark, career-defining motion picture which would set the stage for three decades of a niche auteur’s long and legendary career” would sound a tad unlikely, perhaps even absurd. But for those of us who truly know the life’s work of ultra-low-budget DTV maestro Charles Band, GHOULIES is the beginning. GHOULIES started it all. Without GHOULIES, there is no DOLLS, no TROLL (and therefore no TROLL 2!) no GINGERDEAD MAN. No DOLLMAN VS. DEMONIC TOYS. No EVIL BONG. And the world would be, I dunno, slightly poorer for it in some ways. Although arguably better off in others possibly.

GHOULIES is not important because it’s the first film produced by Charles Band, nor even the first produced by the most venerable of his various production companies, the austerely monikered Empire Films. Band had been producing movies since 1973’s LAST FOXTROT IN BURBANK (edited by a pre-HALLOWEEN John Carpenter!) and Empire Pictures had produced its first film the previous year. No, GHOULIES is the beginning of a different era entirely; not the start of a career, but the inauguration of Band’s ongoing tinyphiliac period. This era  --to my knowledge first identified by Seagalogy author Vern-- is defined by Band’s obsessive focus on mean little bastards. It began with GHOULIES, but quickly spiraled out of control into TROLL, DOLLS, DOLLMAN, PUPPETMASTER, DEMONIC TOYS, DOLLMAN VS DEMONIC TOYS, SHRUNKEN HEADS, LEAPIN’ LEPRECHAUNS (not to be confused with the 1993 Warwick Davis LEPRECHAUN), SHRUNKEN CITY, and, of course, GINGERDEAD MAN. And that’s just a quick overview of this phenomenon.

Considering that pedigree, I hadn’t exactly rushed to see GHOULIES. If your movie has the name “Charles Band” anywhere associated with it, it’s a good bet it’s going towards the bottom of my priorities list, and GHOULIES has been languishing there for some time now. I’m glad I live in a universe where GINGERDEAD MAN 2: PASSION OF THE CRUST is a real movie with a funny title, but even for me, life’s a little short to spend 82 minutes on a joke title. And the world isn’t exactly hurting for 1980’s creature features for me to waste my life on, between the CRITTERSes and GREMLINSes and TREMORSes and BASKET CASEs and THE GATE and HOBGOBLINS, and somebody said something about a movie called MUNCHIES? But you know what is hurting for 1980’s creature features? Every fuckin’ streaming service. Netflix has about 90,000 no-budget zero-effort drab and featureless PARANORMAL ACTIVITY ripoffs from 2016 alone, but try to find something fun and colorful with a monster puppet or something and you’ll be running back to Pirate Bay faster than you can say “Nilborg.”

But Hulu did have GHOULIES, and after a few brief moments considering suicide as an alternative, I decided, what the heck, gotta get GHOULIES in there eventually. Might as well be now.

And you know what? I realize this might be a controversial opinion, but I would say that GHOULIES is better than suicide in some respects, all things considered. I mean, it’s hardly a real movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s not without its scrappy charms. And it’s certainly not light on ghoulies.

Our story begins with cult leader Malcolm Graves (Michael Des Barre, best known as the frontman for ex-punk supergroup Chequered Past and as Robert Palmer’s replacement in Power Station, and also as the recurring character Murdoc on McGuyver. But hey, he was also in UNDER SIEGE, PINK CADILLAC, and MULHOLLAND DRIVE, so he’s had a rich, full life) initiating some kind of baby-sacrificing ceremony like they used to do a lot back in the 1980’s. He has big scary glowing green eyes, so you know this shit is legit, he’s not just some two-bit hustler trying to get laid, he’s obviously onto something here. You’d think that alone would be enough to convince the baby’s mother (Victoria Catlin, MANIAC COP, HOWLING V) to go along with this, but apparently they never discussed it ahead of time, because she acts like this is the first she’s heard of any baby sacrificing (she’s wearing a robe and reciting the incantation, but maybe she didn’t read all the way through the brochure before joining up?) and right before the big stabby moment, she leaps forward to put a stop to everything. This is a double whammy because not only does it really kill the mood, it’s going to result in some awkward PTA meetings and stuff down the line, because Malcolm is also the kid’s father. For some reason Mom’s objection seems to do the trick, and the Malcolm dejectedly sends the baby away to live with another cultist (Jack Nance, ERASERHEAD, Twin Peaks) and contents himself with killing the mom, because, fuck it, he didn’t get the glowing eye thing going to not murder somebody.

This would seem to wrap things up pretty neatly, but this is not the story of the mother, this is the story of the baby. As the sudden narration jarringly explains, the child was raised to adulthood by Jack Nance, who appears to be some kind of mute hermit, or at least a real strong, silent type who doesn’t say anything unless he’s narrating (I think that’s him) or until the movie’s last scene. But he’s Jack Nance, dammit, so he can do whatever he damn well wants. The son, though, has grown into Nathan Fillion lookalike Jonathan (Peter Liapis, GHOULIES IV), and apparently no one ever mentioned to him about his father being a crazy cult wizard who tried to sacrifice him at birth and murdered his mom, so when he gets the word that his father has died and he has inherited his palatial murder estate (complete with on-premise grave), he sees no reason not to immediately move in and invite his intensely 80’s friends and his gal (Juilliard-trained Lisa Pelikan, JENNIFER, LIONHEART) over for a crazy party.

The longer he stays in the house, though, the more he starts to fixate on the idea of the occult, and dabble in the black arts. One day his girlfriend walks in on him in the basement, glowing green eyes and everything, conducting some sort of unholy ritual which has summoned a howling rainstorm in the basement. She doesn’t seem at all surprised to learn that magic is real, but she is super annoyed that he’s been mastering it instead of fixing up the house. She demands he stop trying to explore the furthest reaches of arcane knowledge and gain the infinite power to shape the universe to his will, or at the very least not conduct occult rituals while they’re getting busy. When he fails to clear even this low bar, he figures he’d better play it safe and put the mind whammy on her so she doesn’t interfere while he summons as many god damn ghoulies as he pleases, yes sir.

One odd thing about GHOULIES is that from the plot I’ve just described, it sounds like Jonathan is the bad guy of the story, but the movie can’t seem to quite make up its mind about that. Our hero seems to oscillate wildly between conducting ecstatic, screaming satanic ceremonies and acting like he’s just casually interested and confused and a little embarrassed that anyone would think he’s really into it. When his girl walks in on his ceremony he acts like she’s caught him jerking off in the shower; he’s embarrassed and apologetic but also seems to think she’s really making a big fuss over nothing. Baby I AM working on the house, I just thought I’d play around with the dark arts a little in my spare time. Jeez, I didn’t think it would be such a big deal. It’s really hard to tell if the house and/or his dead father is putting the mind whammy on him and also manipulating him to try and cover it up, or if he really doesn’t see the harm in dabbling in a little satanic magic in his spare time, and just lets his daytime hobby get a little out of hand.

Anyway, you don’t care about that at all, and I know that. You want to know about the Ghoulies. And you are right, that’s the only thing which is remotely important here, and I’m happy to tell you it’s also the one thing they get pretty right. The ghoulies are a motley lot of gross, slimy, furry, googly-eyed puppets created by John Carl Buechler (director of TROLL, CELLAR DWELLER, and FRIDAY THE 13th PART VII: THE NEW BLOOD, i.e. the one where Jason has some kind of demon face and fights the telekinetic chick). They look only marginally more lifelike than Kermit the Frog, but they make up for it by being numerous, gimmicky, charismatic, and frequently on-screen. That’s one great thing about puppets: once you’ve made them, the cost is already sunk, and you might as well have them in every scene after that, just hanging around. I like to look at them, and the movie is happy to generously provide that service. Can’t do that shit with CG, no sir. But no need to be stingy with your Ghoulies.

Incidentally, the same rule holds true for the “glowing green eye” magic effect which we first see on Malcolm, and subsequently on Jonathan in increasingly every scene as the movie rolls along. I first assumed that this was your typical animated 80’s green glow, but on closer examination these “glowing eyes” actually appear to be huge holographic contact lenses which covers the entire eyeball, including the white. And just like ghoulie puppets, once you’ve bought one pair, you might as well get plenty of mileage out of ‘em and have everyone in every scene try them on. They’re a pretty nifty effect, and a pretty novel one; I can't recall recall ever seeing anything quite like it before, though that might have something to do with the fact that they don’t always seem to be looking in the same direction at the same time. They also must be an absolute nightmare to use. Liapis seems to wears them pretty gracefully, but on the fancy HD version you can clearly see Des Barre’s eyes twitching and watering and looking about ready to fall out of his head, even as he dutifully hams it up. And ham it up he does, with the heart of a champion. That’s a real pro, there. That shit does not look comfortable.

Look how great that is, though.

The Ghoulies themselves are actually only a little more integral to the plot than the hologram contacts: they’re absolutely essential for this movie to exist, but in all honesty they don’t really do all that much, and are involved in what could generously be termed "the narrative" only in the most tangential ways. They have adorable expressive faces, but otherwise can’t move too much and --as hand puppets-- they don’t have legs, so most of the dramatic heavy lifting in the creature department is done by a pair of little people (Peter Risch, “Little Person #2” SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES and Tamara de Treaux, who may or may not have spent some time in the E.T. suit, and was also in DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK) who are make the absolute best of roles which could not, in all honesty, be described as entirely un-demeaning. But at least in the big finale, most of the ghoulies get a showpiece kill, somewhat justifying their presence. In fact, once the body harvest begins, GHOULIES can't stop itself from also throwing a showpiece kill to a rogue non-ghoulie nightmarish human-sized jester doll who pulls off his rubber face to reveal some kind of slimy, uh, thing, and to a beautiful seductress who chokes a guy with a five-foot-long tongue. None of that is really integral to the plot, but it is integral to the movie, and you can trust Band, Buechler, and director Bercovici (primarily an actor, though not in any movie I've ever heard of in 65 credits spanning nearly four decades) to understand that fact. GHOULIES is not the kind of movie that can reasonably make a play for respectability or serious-minded artistic analysis, but it’s definitely committed to being entertaining. And what more could you want from a movie called GHOULIES?

OK, fair enough, you’d want a little more Jack Nance, who has, I think, two spoken lines of dialogue (outside his sporadic attempts to turn narrator). Good thing he’s Jack Nance, so we’re still excited to see him show up at the end to save the day with animated 80’s lightning while our hero does nothing. I can’t call that a great ending, and I can’t call it great cinema, but it gets the job done. That’s GHOULIES for ya.

(And by “gets the job done” I mean it sets up a sequel with even more Ghoulies. Look, we’re not making art here. But for a low-rent meat-and-potatoes creature feature, it knows what it is and commits to the work of being GHOULIES 1 without shame. I can respect that. And that’s not a phrase I thought I’d be likely to use on a Charles Band production, so considering what we’re talking about here it’s basically a goddam miracle.)
EDIT: OH God, I just realized GHOULIES III is subtitled: GHOULIES GO TO COLLEGE, fuck, now I'm going to have to watch the whole fucking series.

EDIT 2: Oh wait, the last one is directed by Jim Wynorski, so I guess not quite the whole series.


The Discreet Charm of the Killing Spree

They’ll Get You In The End. This was originally sort of a pun, playing off the poster with one of the Ghoulies coming out of a toilet, but it’s also literally true that the only time they get anyone is in the film’s finale.
There are, indeed, Ghoulies, though I don’t know that anyone ever specifically refers to them as such.
Absolutely not.
Ghoules II-IV
Creature Feature, Tinyphiliac horror, puppet horror
Jack Nance? I dunno, he’s not really a horror icon I guess, but he is an icon of something. And I don’t know if “beloved” is the right word, but Band himself is something of an icon, as is Ghoulies creator John Carl Buechler.
Nah, though there’s an awkward sex scene (under the covers) where he’s trying to do a ritual on the sly while boning his gal, and she catches him and storms out and he acts real sheepish. I wouldn’t call this sexual assault, but it’s definitely behavior I frown upon.
None, except the ghoulies
Revived Malcolm seems pretty zombie-esque, though he talks and stuff
Depends how you want to interpret why he does all this shit. But either way, his girlfriend definitely gets the whammy
Yeah! A good lifesized horror doll.
Doll into slimy monsters
I’m basically incapable of not liking a movie with a bunch of Ghoulie puppets, regardless of the movie which surrounds them.

Also, check in with your girlfriend from time to time if you’re planning on delving into the Satanic arts in any serious way. Communication is the cornerstone of any healthy relationship.

And a pretty strong three-thumbs, falling just short of a fourth

No comments:

Post a Comment