Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Ghoulies (1985)

... aka: Beasties
... aka: Duhovi (Ghosts)
... aka: Les goules (The Ghouls)

Directed by:
Luca Bercovici

The heavily-publicized Gremlins (which began production in the spring of 1983) became the fourth largest domestic box office draw of 1984, behind only Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It was also a huge hit globally and merchandising of various Gremlins products (dolls, toys, video games...) sent profits even further through the roof. The Joe Dante directed film had finished principle photography an entire year before its '84 summer release. In the meantime, the Charles Band-produced Ghoulies went into production at the end of January 1984. Filming had to be closed down for several months when they ran out of money but was eventually picked back up again. The finished product was dumped into around 350 theaters about a year after production first began... and just a few months after Gremlins finished its theatrical run. The result? While exact figures aren't known it clearly was profitable; likely highly profitable. According to the (I think self-penned) bio for director Bercovici on IMDb, Ghoulies "was the top grossing independent film in 1985." I'm not sure if that's true or not but I could see it being at least one of the biggest independent films of the year.

At a Satanic mass, manic, green-eyed cult leader Malcolm Graves (Michael Des Barres) plans on sacrificing his own son until mother Anastasia (Victoria Catlin) steps in. She puts a protective necklace around the babies neck to where he cannot be harmed. Malcolm orders it taken away by cult member Wolfgang (Jack Nance) and decides to use the mother as his sacrifice instead, unleashing his slimy puppet monsters on her. Several decades later, the father has died and the now-grown baby, college student Jonathan (Peter Liapis), has shown up to take possession of the family mansion. His girlfriend Rebecca (Lisa Pelikan, from JENNIFER) comes along to help whip the dilapidated place into shape. Serving as the caretaker there is Wolfgang; the only family Jonathan's ever known and thus someone he has no plans of dismissing despite his odd behavior. While looking through the basement, Jonathan finds a box containing his father's ceremonial robe and a book of spells.

Before they really start cleaning up, Rebecca decides to host a party there. After all, the place is already a mess so what harm could anyone really do? Once it clears out some and only a few guests; Rebecca's best friend Donna (Mariska Hargitay in her film debut), oddball Mark aka "Toad Boy" (Ralph Seymour), obnoxious druggies Mike (Scott Thomson) and Eddie (David Dayan), slutty Robin (Charene Cathleen) and tacky horn dog Dick (Keith Joe Dick), remain, they're at a loss as to what to do. Hide-and-seek? That's for kids! Trivial Pursuit? That's for nerds! Strip poker? That's for people in an R-rated movie! Strip monopoly? Wrong movie! How about conducting a Satanic ritual in the basement using the dead father's ancient spell book? Sure! While they go through with part of the ceremony, which doesn't seem to work, they all leave the circle before Jonathan has a chance to "dismiss the spirit."

Against his girlfriend's objections, Jonathan decides to temporarily drop out of school to tend to his inheritance. Now spending more time in the home alone, he starts following in his warlock father's footsteps and gradually taking on his evil persona. He makes weapons and talismans, causes it to rain, conjures up a bunch of little rubbery puppet demons that he can control plus two helmeted dwarf servants, Grizzel (Peter Risch) and Greedigut (Tamara De Treaux), and continues to try his hand at spell casting. He gets so into it that his eyes permanently glow green, just like his father's. Rebecca isn't too fond of the new Jonathan nor his sudden obsession with black magic. When she threatens to leave him, he casts a spell on her to keep her around and obedient.

In his quest for unlimited knowledge and power, Jonathan needs seven people to take part in some kind of ceremony. He manages to lure his friends over and entrances them long enough to recite the incantation. And then, well, everything backfires because he's been tricked by the dwarfs to help resurrect his father from the grave. The zombie father then sends all of the ghoulies on a mission to kill off all the friends while plotting to complete the sacrifice of Jonathan from twenty years earlier for his own power gain.

This Empire release is another of those unfortunate horror comedies that's neither scary nor funny. It's not good camp, nor is it enjoyably over-the-top, nor is it good exploitation with its mild PG-13 rated "thrills." While I doubt anyone, even children, could possibly be scared by any of this, the film fails even harder in the comedy department. The antics of some of the obnoxious friend characters aren't amusing in the least and that's about the only intentional "comedic" content in this one aside from reaction shots of the cheap-looking monsters to various goings-on. Most of the film focuses on the unlikable Jonathan and those scenes are played completely seriously. The acting is highly variable and there's needless narration (by Nance) added in spots, which serves no purpose other than telling us exactly what's already been put up on screen.

This would have also benefited from more focus placed on the titular creatures and less on the generic Satanism stuff. Sure, the ghoulies eventually get to kill a few people but they mostly just sit around watching what everyone else is doing. The oft-criticized John Carl Buechler-designed rubbery / toothy / slimy / ugly monsters are undeniably hokey, and could have used some more mobility, but they're really the least of the film's problems.

Faint praise, I know, but this also could have been worse. Partially redeeming it are some enjoyable fantasy elements being bandied about and the fact it's well-produced and not horribly made from a technical standpoint. Photography (by Mac Ahlberg), art direction / sets and lighting are all pretty good and some imaginative moments occasionally come through, like a ghoulie controlling a killer clown doll and a temptress (Bobbie Bresee) strangling someone with her elongated mutant tongue. We also get a five second shot of a ghoulie emerging from a toilet, which became the fitting central image of the marketing campaign.

Ted Nicolaou was the editor and the score (available on a soundtrack CD) is from Richard Band and Shirley Walker. This was followed by three sequels: GHOULIES II (1987), GHOULIES III: GHOULIES GO TO COLLEGE (filmed in 1989 but not released until 2 years later) and the curiously ghoulie-free Ghoulies IV (1994). Band was later sued by Hemdale Film Corporation for misrepresentation over the home video distribution rights. Director Bercovici, who went on to make Rockula (1990), The Granny (1995) and some action movies, co-wrote with Jefery Levy (who also produced and contributed several songs as "Fela Johnson").

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