Ghoulies released in 1985, a year after Joe Dante’s popular furry creature flick Gremlins; the similarities end, however, with the proliferation of monstrous and mischievous little devils. This Charles Band-produced film is more focused on black magic and its effects on the user than the beasties that roam the film’s house – they’re present mostly to fuel the comedy, and that’s one of the most positive aspects of Ghoulies‘ approach to horror. Luca Bercovici’s direction, and his script with co-writer Jefery Levy, recognizes that in order for the film to be effective, it has to refrain from taking itself seriously; its puppet effects aren’t great, its storyline is somewhat ridiculous, and instead of attempting to craft a serious plot around these elements, the film embraces its B-movie influences.
I once reviewed Ghoulies before, and looking back at that review I realize that I failed to recognize that Ghoulies was never about creating a good film, nor was it about the creatures themselves. It’s about having fun, both with the elements of horror films that were popular at the time – the haunted house formula – and the characters that populate the movie. Other than that, Ghoulies isn’t ambitious enough to search for greatness; it’s simply a watchable film that exists to make the viewer laugh, and perhaps discuss some paternal themes implicit in the story.
While Bercovici relies on the Ghoulies as a source of laughs, it’s his characters that supply the bulk of the absurd comedy. Keith Joe Dick has the Fonzie act down as Dick, a total jerk-off whose sole motivation at a couple of parties is to bang chicks. Mike and Eddie are two drunken potheads who manage to miss most of the violence because they’re too busy looking for beers. But most notable is lead actor Peter Liapis as Jonathan Graves; he gets to let loose in a role that allows him to switch from loving boyfriend to crazed black magic abuser in the span of a couple of minutes. Highlight his eyes with green and you’ve got yourself a character that’s hard to hate, even when he’s sort of abusing his girlfriend by forcing her to have sex with him so he can complete ritual.
The reason it’s important to highlight the outlandishly funny characters is because Ghoulies‘ plot lacks character motivation. Its central conceit – Jonathan’s attraction to black magic after moving into his father’s ghastly house – fails to explain why Jonathan becomes so entranced with something he seemingly knew nothing about. At the same time, the entire scenario is left to the viewer for explanation; there’s no rhyme or reason why Ghoulies are summoned as well as the midgits Grizzel and Greedigut. But none of that matters, because it’s arranged into a cohesive plot that, though mysteriously lacking in exposition, makes up for it with an expansive, creepy house and a party sequence that gathers all of the friends up so the Ghoulies can have their way with them.
The party towards the end of the film is where Ghoulies really hits its stride; by taking each of the characters and putting them in situations throughout the house, the film is able to take the focus off of Jonathan and Rebecca (Lisa Pelikan) – who are at this point too far gone for the audience to get much satisfaction from watching – in order to have some fun with the gloomy setting and the creatures that have so far done little more than hold books or make funny faces. (Speaking of, this guy’s my favorite.)
But Ghoulies really comes down to a showdown between father and son over power. While the film doesn’t explicitly state this, and it’s difficult to believe this was built into the film purposely, there is a Freudian concept present, where Jonathan is forced to conquer his father in order to get the girl. Ultimately, this is just a small aspect of Ghoulies; what’s really here is a story about two guys fighting each other with some bad electricity effects.
If you’re in the mood for a horror comedy, though, Ghoulies is definitely one to keep in mind. The lead-in to the appearance of the Ghoulies has a great haunted house plot built in, and all of the actors deliver on the antics – this was Mariska Hargitay’s first film, and though she doesn’t get to do a whole lot, she sure does look purty! The Ghoulies franchise changes pretty significantly after this film, adopting a more creature-centric approach, but the first entry in the series manages to combine black magic and its monster effects into a film that rarely misses an opportunity to laugh at itself.
In the previous review of Ghoulies I noted the film’s focus on the haunted house aspect of its plot. Ghoulies II, attempting to capitalize on the franchise, changes the setting and the black magic of the original. Albert Band, Charles’ father, directed this sequel with Dennis Paoli’s screenplay, so there was certainly an adherence to the tone of its predecessor; at the same time, though, this film is far more interested in the antics of the Ghoulies demons themselves than the magic that brings them to life. In a way, it works to distance itself from Ghoulies so that it doesn’t feel too derivative. However, the Ghoulies can’t really carry the film, and Ghoulies II often suffers from a slow-moving plot because of its reliance on creature gags rather than actual story.
The Ghoulies head to a carnival thanks to a truck carrying props and equipment for Satan’s Den, a midway attraction that promises scares and magic by way of wax figures and bad special effects. Larry (Damon Martin) is a kid working on the set with his uncle Ned (Royal Dano), attempting to get the place fixed up for the new accountant from the Hardin corporation that owns the carnival. Hardin (J. Downing) wants to shut the place down because it’s not bringing in any money, but he’s also always open to anything that could potentially make bank. When the Ghoulies take up residence in the horror house, the attraction’s popularity skyrockets even as the carnival’s population dwindles.
Ghoulies II’s similarities to the first film are limited to the appearance of the monsters alone. The film keeps all of the original monsters and adds a couple extras – there’s a flying demon that adds an additional layer to the film, especially because its bat-like flight allows it to mess with its victims from above. Another interesting addition is the rat Ghoulies’ ability to spit a green phlegmy mucus; one can see that the sequel finds Band and his crew getting more ambitious with effects and creature movements.
While the effects are a high point for the film, the plot itself pales in comparison. The carnival aspect should be a lot of fun – the rides, the sounds, the music are all nostalgic things that resonate with viewers, and for horror fans, funhouses are probably high on the list of favorite places on the midway. But Ghoulies II doesn’t use these elements to its advantage, instead quarantining the Ghoulies to just one place and then having to find ways to get victims to them. Instead of allowing the Ghoulies free reign, most of the film continues to take place in one room of the funhouse, where various visitors are threatened by guillotine and swinging blade.
Ghoulies II feels stale with this approach; ultimately, it’s a film more interested in following Larry’s arc, trying to figure out how to save the funhouse from a stingy yuppie. While Downing hits all the right notes as Hardin, his character has little nuance to it. He’s a complete dick, and that doesn’t change throughout the film until his demise when Band reuses the toilet gag to literally bite him in the ass. The characters in this film just aren’t memorable, and even Larry’s love interest Nicole (Kerry Remsen) has to give a rather bland recounting of the death of her brother to have much of a backstory. Phil Fondacaro has the best part as Nigel, a Shakespearean actor stuck in an ape suit at the horror house, mostly because it’s so forced.
Still, the goofy nature of Ghoulies is present, from the sound effects of the creatures to the frolicking soundtrack from Fuzzbee Morse (curiously, Charles Band’s brother didn’t come back for this). If the antics from the first film had one laughing, then Ghoulies II kicks it up a notch. Additionally, it adds a new effect for the franchise: casting the wrong spell creates a giant Ghoulie, clearly a man in a rubber suit, that eats all the other Ghoulies for sustenance.
While it’s good to see Ghoulies II thinking up new ideas for its monsters, it’s just not enough to make this outing as enjoyable as the first. The humor isn’t as funny this time around even though the blood gets thicker. The franchise only continues to decline from here, so taken in context Ghoulies II is a bit better than its future brethren. But even looking at the artwork and tagline, it’s clear that Ghoulies II is simply an imitation of what the first flick did better.
Scream Factory’s release gets the double-feature treatment with inside artwork from both films. It comes packaged on one Blu-Ray with a pretty cool set of menu screens. The video quality looks to be about on par (if not the same) from what I’ve seen before, and the audio comes with choice of 5.1 or 2.0 DTS. Surprisingly, both Ghoulies films sounded quite muffled with the 5.1 so I switched to 2.0 for better quality.
Ghoulies gets an audio commentary (not new) from director Luca Bercovici. It also comes with a new making-of featurette that features interviews from Charles Band, Michael Des Barres, Richard Band, and John Vulich. While Band’s interview takes up most of the feature (rightly so, because he has a lot of good stories), there’s some nice input from Des Barres and Richard Band about the process and how they feel about the film over the years. Vulich gets a really quick snippet and not much more. Also included is the trailer for Ghoulies (with the monster popping out of the toilet) and a few stills.
Ghoulies II also gets a set of interviews, again with Charles Band leading the charge. This time, however, Kerry Remsen and Donnie Jeffcoat get to take part in the reminiscing. Jeffcoat played Eddie, one of the younger kids, in the film, and he waxes nostalgic about working on the picture in Italy. The same is true for Remsen, although she also gets into the acting aspect as well, noting it was difficult to react sometimes because the Ghoulies weren’t actually there. Special effects guy Gino Crognale gets a few moments as well, mostly to talk about the re-use of the Ghoulies puppets from the first film. Also included is a set of alternate scenes, most of them simply elongated and bloodier moments of the death scenes cut from the film. Finally, a theatrical trailer and set of stills round out the special features.