Wednesday, April 22, 2015

GHOULIES (1985) Blu-ray Review

Ghoulies (1985) d. Luca Bercovici (USA)

Unapologetically juvenile with a paper-thin plot, entertainment value for this early Empire Pictures effort will depend entirely on one’s palate for cheesy effects and lusty overacting. Jonathan Graves (Peter Liapis) and his girlfriend Rebecca (Lisa Pelikan) move into the old family mansion inherited from his Satan-worshiping pop (rock singer-turned-actor Michael Des Barres). Upon taking up residence, and stumbling upon a tome of ancient spells and a family grave, he finds himself compelled to summon a myriad of latex beasties into this world (designed by creature man extraordinaire John Carl Buechler) and unleash them upon his circle of friends in a decidedly murky basement ritual.

Exec-produced by Charles Band hot on the heels of Joe Dante’s bigger-budgeted Gremlins, this is the film that kicked off the Empire heyday which would come to full blossom with Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator a few months later. While the film itself was wildly profitable, it’s likely more famous to a certain generation for its one-sheet poster, featuring the greenest and baldest of the bunch poking his head up from a toilet with the memorable tagline, “They’ll get you in the end!” (For the making-of doc on Shout! Factory’s new Blu-ray, Band recounts the now-familiar story of how many letters he received from parents, upset that their children were suddenly terrified to use the bathroom as a result of the artwork.)

In addition to Band, the production team reads like a Who’s Who of cheesetastic '80s cinema. Co-written by Bercovici and producer Jefery Levy (the two would re-team for 1990’s Rockula), with reliable cinematographer Mac Ahlberg (Dolls, The Horror Show, DeepStar Six) working miracles within his low-rent light and shadow, and future Subspecies and TerrorVision director Ted Nicolaou handling the editing chores. Composer Richard Band brings out his reliable honky horns and singing strings to keep the mood light and bright

The performances are strictly of the B-movie ilk, with Liapis calling to mind a scenery-chewing Kyle MacLachlan, yet his occult-chanting histrionics are no match for Des Barres’ strutting, snarling villainy or Jack Nance’s thoroughbred weirdness. (The David Lynch mainstay has a reduced but significant part as Graves’ groundskeeper and pseudo-guardian Wolfgang.) Pelikan, whom well-versed aficionados might recognize from her snake-charming turn in 1978’s Carrie-esque Jennifer, does what she can with an underwritten role, drifting between distressed damsel and short-tempered shrew. Little people performers Peter Risch and Tamara De Treaux play both sides of the antagonist fence, at first beholding to Liapis before bending to Des Barres’ superior might.

As with Dante’s blockbuster, it is Buechler’s creations that should be the real stars, but beyond their grotesque designs, the creatures are limited in both mobility and personality, lacking any memorable spark as true characters. It doesn't help matters that they're essentially supporting characters in their own movie! John Vulich and Everett Burrell, both of whom would go on to become SFX legends in their own right, lend a hand where they can, but this feels more like a training ground than a breakthrough. (Also filed under “From Such Humble Beginnings,” future Oscar-winner and KNB superstar Howard Berger is credited as “additional Ghoulie operator.”)

As the victims-to-be, invited as human sacrifices for Jonathan’s new playthings, professional nebbish Ralph Seymour (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Rain Main) makes the strongest impression, and Law & Order: SVU fans should get a kick out of seeing a young Mariska Hargitay screaming while looking ’80s fab in her screen debut. Charene Cathleen ably fulfills her role as requisite eye candy, and Bercovici’s former musical pals Keith Joe Dick and Scott Thomson put in screen time as obnoxious stoners and horndogs. Bobbie Breese (aka everyone’s favorite "knockers with chompers" from 1983's Mausoleum) shows up for a hot second as a demon temptress with a killer tongue.

Shout! Factory brings this cult classic (paired with its 1988 sequel) to Blu-ray with their customary degree of style, serving up a gorgeous high-def presentation and plenty of supplemental material. The 30-minute talking heads retrospective “From Toilets to Terror” provides a venue for the Band brothers, Vulich, and Des Barres to share their memories, fond and otherwise, with the highlight being Charles’ expletive-laced recounting of the ad campaign story – giving credit to advertising legend Gary Allan for the image and the tagline – and the revelation that parts of the film were supposed to be shot in 3D before the concept was abandoned a few days into shooting.

We also learn that he and Stan Winston had originally discussed a similar project (although it’s open to debate whether the working title “Beasties” was his or Bercovici’s), but that by the time Ghoulies came along, Winston had already worked his way too far up the Hollywood food chain to take part. Des Barres comes off as a bit of an arrogant prick in his segment, but it’s hard to argue with his sentiments toward the production (“a throwaway horror film”) and his performance in it. (“The hardest part was not cracking up at the ridiculousness of it all.”) Rock and roll, folks.

The commentary by Bercovici starts off strong, revealing that this was not – as is often believed – simply a Gremlins rip-off, but that the two projects were filming concurrently and that he and Levy had written the script and approached Band about producing it long beforehand. (Band and Bercovici had met while working on 1982’s Parasite as director and actor, respectively.)

The admittedly uneven tone, he reports, was inspired by the fact that Buechler’s creations were just too adorable and humorous to be taken seriously. (“I mean, look at that! That’s just funny.”) A couple of fun facts are doled out, such as Liapis’ green glowing eyeballs effect being accomplished in-camera, thanks to some special contact lenses and a black light, and that De Treaux was among the actors who played inside the costume for Spielberg’s E.T. the Extraterrestrial.

But after a promising opening, the director lapses into long periods of silence, spending the final 45 minutes providing only the occasional comment or clearing his throat. One can’t help but feel that a tinge of bitterness still remains, and it’s easy to understand why. Early on, he alludes to how the relationship between he and Band soured after filming, and that Empire/Full Moon proceeded to crank out three sequels without Bercovici receiving any credit and/or financial remuneration. Ah, Charlie, why do you gotta be such a crook?

Ghoulies (and its superior sequel Ghoulies II) are available now from Shout! Factory as a double feature and can be ordered HERE.

--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine


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