I remember Ghoulies from my dad's video store, a goofy looking horror movie with creatures that looked too cuddly to be gruesome. I had never seen it before the Halloween Fifteen, but I knew that it was something that I was interested in checking out/ I've always loved films like Gremlins and Critters, and Ghoulies looked like it would fit right in. Bill Brock (who occasionally writes for Horrorstuff) raised the evil dead with his contribution to the Halloween Fifteen.
Bill Brock's Take
Occasionally, I like to imagine what 80s me would think of current technology. I can see myself explaining to 80s me about streaming technology. 80s me, who has just recently become accustomed to this new VHS thing and may own a TRS-80, stares at current me in disbelief. What the heck is this internet? Does streaming involve knowledge of BASIC or COBOL? Aren’t these suede Pumas awesome? My jacket was $50 and is for members only, bitch! 80s me then asks current me to sit down in front of the console TV and watch Ghoulies. Current me figures what the Hell I haven’t seen Ghoulies in 25 years and pulls up a bean bag.
Ghoulies is a bait and switch movie. It positions itself as a bit of a Gremlins knockoff even though the titular Ghoulies have little to nothing to do with plot. It’s like The Matrix calling itself Sentinels: The Movie. A more honest title for Ghoulies would be The World’s Oldest College Dude Performs Magic.
The movie opens with a confused cult dressed in white robes going through the motions of a possible Satanic ritual. There are pentagrams and something that looks like a DM’s map of that night’s Dungeons and Dragons campaign so if Rona Jaffe is to be believed it’s satanic. The cult leader is played by Michael De Barres, a guy who was Moriarty to MacGyver’s Holmes and was once married to “famous” book writing groupie Pamela Des Barres. Evil leader guy pulls out a baby to sacrifice and the baby’s mama decides that maybe this is pushing the evil satanic cult thing too far. She puts a necklace on the baby which prevents it from being sacrificed and apparently can’t be removed. The baby is handed off to another cult member who takes it outside and does something with him. The movie can’t be bothered to explain what exactly. I’ll assume he was given to a nice family.
25 years later the all grown up baby inherits the house and arrives with his girlfriend. He’s apparently a college student because he is wearing a letter sweater. I say apparently because he looks to be in his 30s. They meet the caretaker who doesn’t actually talk to them but looks vaguely familiar. The caretaker gives a bit of voice over here and there throughout the movie. I believe the first V.O. provided explains that evil cult leader is now dead and maybe the curse won’t affect the “kid”. As it turns out the caretaker is the guy who carried the baby out at the beginning. For a guy who doesn’t want the curse to get the kid he sure can’t be bothered to clean the house of all the cult books and paraphernalia. They throw a party that night and we are introduced to other far too old to be college student college students.
Well the world’s oldest college student/eventual magic user decides to drop out for a quarter and fix up the house. I sat there waiting for the doing stuff 80s montage set to a song that would never get airplay and it never happened. What the fuck, movie? It’s the 80s dammit. I expect a montage and you cheat me out of it. Fine, I’m listening to “You’re the Best” from Karate Kid right now. Screw you Ghoulies.
The guy gets deeper and deeper into the magic and summons the Ghoulies which are possibly the cheapest puppets imaginable and some midgets who do, well, not much of anything beyond being midgets. Hmmm, unfunny and terrible puppets. Ghoulies is also indirectly responsible for Jeff Dunham. Fuck you again, movie.
Since it is the 80s, he throws a dinner party where everyone has to wear goofy sunglasses. Somewhere along the way cult leader from the beginning is resurrected and wants to kill the former baby to steal his life force and, maybe, become young again. The ghoulies fail to do much beyond kill a person or two. The movie takes a few moments to knock off Poltergeist with this clown doll thing. And the caretaker guy is inexplicably a bad ass mage because someone has to kill Des Barres again. I would say the business with the dead friends knocks off April Fool’s Day but that didn’t come out until a year later. We are finally treated to a bit of sequel-baiting.
I’ve never really been much for nostalgia. It always bites you in the ass. Not that I was ever all that nostalgic for Ghoulies or its many sequels. But, what do we really have here? Ghoulies ultimately is a movie about a guy who uses magic and shit happens. There also happens to be some terrible puppets. I’m guessing that Charles Band saw Gremlins and decided to pretend that the Ghoulies were more important to the plot than they really are and sold the movie based on them. The later movies probably did feature them more. To be honest I really don’t remember any of the other ones. Perhaps I went back in time and told 80s me not to bother.
Should you watch this? No. It fails to engage even on a so bad it is good level.
The Moon is a Dead World's Take
When a horror movie's monsters feel cute and cuddly, it seems like the film will ultimately fail. But that's not true - Basket Case's creature is sort of grotesquely cute, and that movie still makes the monster into ferocious beast. Ghoulies is not like that; its creatures are ugly, but like the world's ugliest dog, they elicit a feeling of empathy for whatever reason. Maybe it's because director Luca Bercovici never takes them seriously; maybe it's because Ghoulies has an Evil Dead-like quality to it, where nothing ever seems to feel like the audience should be worried the next scene will scare them silly. Instead, this movie has a sense of humor all its own - it's not a good film, not even close, but there are moments where Ghoulies gets the toilet humor right.
We start out on a dark and stormy night with a man attempting a magical ritual on a baby, only to find he cannot touch him. Years later, that child is grown up in the form of Jonathan (Peter Liapis), who moves into his father's old house with his girlfriend Rebecca (Lisa Pelikan). Jonathan soon finds strange black magic books and a pentagram in the basement, and in no time at all he learns all of the rituals that will bring ghoulies and two midgets into the house. It'll also bring Jonathan's father Malcolm (Michael Des Barres) back from the grave, prompting a power struggle between Jonathan's foppish hair and Malcolm's '80s metal hair.
The Ghoulies house is imaginative, and it's definitely a plus that the film decides to bring Jonathan's friends along for the ride. Once Jonathan has been practicing the dark arts, he invites his friends over for a dinner party, allowing the ghoulies to sate their appetite for destruction.
If it weren't for this little get-together, though, the titular ghoulies would have no real reason for being in the film. I'm not really sure why Bercovici's script utilized these demons; their presence isn't explained, and besides being servants to a master, they are mysteriously lacking from this film. So too is the mystery behind the strange dwarfs not revealed; why are ghoulies summoned at times and dwarfs at others? And how do their roles change?
There are too many loose threads within Ghoulies to make it a good film, comedic or not. There are also too many sleepy scenes that kill the mood; there are '80s dance parties for no reason, there's a lot of hair, hairspray, and leather, and there's way too little action for the first 45 minutes. Still, one simply must get a kick out of seeing Liapis shouting into the sky with lime green eyes - he reminds me of Keanu Reaves, someone who's not very good at dramatic acting but milking it for all it's worth. That's the name of the game for the acting in Ghoulies, which is all very over-the-top and ridiculous.
But the scenes where there are actual ghoulies are the best ones, unsurprisingly. Their cuddly presence and looks are fun to watch; a scene where a ghoulie poses as a clown doll is easily the best scene in the film. There's just not enough of the ghoulies, and it's less interesting to see Jonathan performing a black magic ritual than it is to see slimy puppets rip the faces off of unsuspecting guests.
In this series opener, Ghoulies doesn't really know where it's going. It's got the same sense of humor as some of the other '80s horror comedies, but it's not very consistent - instead, it often forgets that the main focus of the film should be on the ghoulies, not the ordinary and dull people that populate the film. In subsequent films in the series, I would hope that the ghoulies get the appearances that they deserve.