Which is not to say that horror movies can't be fun, but most people don't look at them that way. Most people, once they outgrow special effects, get their scares from human drama. People who do stick with horror films learn to appreciate them in an ironc fashion. Sometimes filmmakers cater directly to this crowd, which is why the iconic slasher characters have all devolved into self-parody. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
I'm not sure Ghoulies is working the satire angle, but that's the way to appreciate it.
I was introduced--briefly--to Ghoulies when it came out in 1985. I was five years old, and it they ran previews on afternoon television, which may not have been appropriate, given the PG-13 rating, and the it was probably running during The Jetsons or Mr. Wizard. No matter. The trailer was full of images that impressed me at the time, and I wanted to see it. Mom said no, which I knew she would, and I let it go at that.
Still, the images festered in my mind, and by my early 20s, Ghoulies and Ghoulies II were out on a budget DVD which seemed cheap enough to justify the blind purchase.
Five-year-old me would have appreciated Ghoulies as a horror movie. Twenty-three year old me appreciated it as a campy, unintentional comedy. Now that I'm older and wiser, I can tell from the PG-13 rating that it was intended to be a teen-friendly horror comedy. Did teenagers like this kind of stuff in the '80s? Beats me. The '80s and '90s are a fascinating time for fans of genre films because filmmaking and distribution were getting much cheaper than they had been, and the videocassette boom of the '80s allowed the market to be flooded with really weird stuff. Literally thousands of movies from that era premiered and flopped on video, and are effectively lost. A lot of them are the kind of crap you'd never want to sit through, but a lot of them simply never got a chance to find their audience. This fact is the driving force behind my film appreciation, and fact that there are good, weird, undiscovered movies that NO ONE WILL EVER SEE depresses the hell out of me.
Ghoulies is not a forgotten gem. It was a low-budget theatrical success that became a home video hit, and spawned three sequels. I've seen Ghoulies II, but not recently enough to remember how much I like it. Haven't seen the other two, but I hear the third one has Kevin McCarthy in it, which would almost be a selling point if it didn't feature Matthew Lillard, too. Kidding.
So enough pontification. Let's talk about the movie.
Ghoulies stars a bunch of people who look vaguely familiar, but who haven't really been in much of anything that I've seen, according to IMDB. David Lynch fans will spot Jack Nance as the Deux Ex Old Caretaker of the story, and you'll see a young Mariska Hargitay (Law & Order: SVU). The credits tell me Scott Thompson's in it, but IMDB tells me it's Scott Thompson from Johnny Dangerously, not Scott Thompson from Kids in the Hall or Scott Thompson, the actual name of the comedian Carrot Top. We're not going to talk about the actors here.
The movie opens with a Satanic ritual. A guy who looks like the lead singer of a '70s rock band (okay, fine, it's Michael Des Barres, who almost got to be the lead singer of Queen) waves his arms around and Warbles A Lot Of Weird Words Into The Wind, and tries to sacrifice a child, but mom steps in and gets herself stabbed in the chest instead. The baby survives and grows up far away from Satanism. This is Jonathan, our main character. He never meets or learns much about his father, but he does inherit the house when his father dies.
The story proper begins when Johnathan and his girlfriend Rebecca, two young, ordinary, healthy kids, move into the mansion. It's what you might call a fixer-upper, but Jonathan's very pleased to live there, and he's especially curious about his father's collection of old, occult books. Out walking the grounds, Rebecca discovers the final resting place of Jonathan's father. "It looks like some kind of...grave!" she says. Presumably she's has noticed the headstone that says "HERE LIES MALCOLM GRAVES".
J & R get the house into a more or less presentable state, and have the sort of wild party that happens in PG-13 '80s movies. The attendees are all extreme caricatures: there's the Party Girl who speaks only in double entendres, the Pompadored Horndog who speaks only in single entendres ("They call me Dick, but you can call me... Dick."), and the Stoner Who Is Never Explicitly Referred To As A Stoner who never takes off his sunglasses, and Toad Boy, who is of specific interest. Toad Boy is the most perplexing character in the movie. He goes around saying things like "Toad Boy needs some sweetmeats for his tum!" in a squeaky voice, and it's hard to imagine any of the characters wanting to hang out with him.
Anyway, the party goes late into the night. After things have wound down and most of the guests have gone home, Jonathan's core group of friends is discussing how they should finish out the evening. Drugs? Scrabble? Excquisite Corpse? "No," Jonathan says, "let's do a ritual."
This is perhaps the single stupidest line of dialogue in the history of filmmaking. Maybe it's less funny out of context, but it has never been a good idea to perform a Satanic ritual, especially not when you're in a movie called Ghoulies. Are you kidding me? "Let's do a ritual"? You might as well apply the "KICK ME" sign to the front of your own shirt. "Let's do a ritual". Come on.
The ritual doesn't amount to much, and soon everyone gets bored and goes upstairs. "Wait," says Jonathan. "We haven't dismissed the spirit!" "Yeah," says the zany sunglasses at night guy, "I gotta dismiss the spirit, too. Where's your bathroom?" A strange, little monster appears in the center of the pentagram, and no one notices. Which is fine--it has no effect on the rest of the movie.
Jonathan's been reading incantations from the books, and summoning weird creatures, who make an appearance but don't really interfere. In the weeks following the party, he delves deeper into the occult, drops out of school, and begins to become a real sorcerer. Rebecca objects, but he finds a way to control her and bend her to his will. He learns that in order to progress he'll need a sacrifice of seven souls. Time to have another party...
The second party provides the climax of the movie. Spirits are summoned, and disgusting little imps pop out of toilets and gravy boats. He also summons a couple of subservient midgets who happen to be named after demons exorcised by Matthew Hopkins, but how many people will notice such a detail. Finally, Malcolm Graves is resurrected, and wraps his tongue around the Pompador Horndog's neck. Sooner or later, Jonathan has to face the fact that maybe--just maybe--he's done a bad, bad thing.
This probably doesn't sound so great. It's not a great movie, but it's a weird one, and I can't figure out who the filmmakers were trying to reach or what they were trying to do, exactly. Actually, that's not true. Ghoulies was originally going to be directed by Charles Band who ended up producing instead. Mr. Band was a pioneer of low-budget, mostly direct-to-video creature features; movies with a lot of gross-out practical effects. They are not good films, but they're good at what they're trying to do. Charles Band makes the kind of movies Lloyd Kaufman would make if he were trying to make a good impression on his girlfriend's dad. Does that make sense? To me it does.
Anyway, in Band's hands, the horror and the comedy might have been a little bolder. As-is, it's kind of lukewarm, but it has some pretty hilarious moments--accidental ones.
Click here for the trailer.