Ghoulies / Ghoulies II (Blu-ray)
Starring Peter Liapis, Jack Nance, Lisa Pelikan, Royal Dano, Damon Martin,
Directed by Luca Bercovici and Albert Band
Distributed by The Scream Factory
The 1980s were fertile ground for a subgenre of horror that appears to have died off – little creature features. Films featuring diminutive demons took off in a big way once Gremlins (1984) hit the scene, with a slew of imitators hitting cinemas and the DTV circuit over the remainder of the decade. Despite wild variations in quality, most turned out to be schlocky fun, if nothing else. Personally, one of my favorite “bad” Gremlins rip-offs has long been Roger Corman’s Munchies (1987), featuring Harvey Korman in a dual role as dichotomous twin brothers. One of the more memorable film series comes from the unquestionable king of pint-sized terrors, Charles Band. Ghoulies (1984) was one of the first to capitalize on the success of Gremlins, earning its own notorious reputation thanks to a poster featuring one of the titular characters popping out of a toilet. Every child who visited a rental store in the ‘80s made sure to check the porcelain altar twice before popping a squat. I may be speaking from experience…
The first film tells the story of Jonathan Graves (Peter Liapis), a young man who discovers his late father was an acolyte of Satan, performing rituals of black magic in the family mansion. Baby Jonathan was set to be sacrificed during one such ritual, but Wolfgang (Jack Nance) rescued him and has kept watch over the young man his entire life. One night, Jonathan throws a party at the sprawling estate and when the energy dies down, everyone agrees the most fun thing to do is – you guessed it – performing a satanic ritual. They do, but it appears to fizzle out… until just after everyone has left the room, when the ghoulies materialize. Jonathan becomes obsessed with the occult, neglecting his girlfriend Rebecca (Lisa Pelikan) and spending all of his time down in the basement trying to conjure up spirits. His efforts bring forth two medieval dwarves – Grizzel (Peter Risch) and Greedigut (Tamara De Treaux) – who are sworn to do his bidding. Jonathan again has his friends over and again performs a ritual, only this time he resurrects his dear departed daddy, Malcolm Graves (Michael Des Barres), who goes on a killing spree, dispatching all of Jonathan’s closest friends. This, of course, leads to a final confrontation with Jonathan and Malcolm going head to head using their powers of darkness… a battle where an old nemesis returns to put an end to Malcolm’s evil ways.
Ghoulies is a film that plays a bit better when you’re younger and far less discerning of film quality, though it’s by no means a tough watch. I had always appreciated the film’s sinister streak and undercurrent of evil. There’s a scene after Malcolm’s resurrection where he appears to one of the partygoers as a beautiful young woman, only to reveal himself as a decaying incubus with a prehensile tongue just before killing the guy. Cheesy as it may look now, the scene has always stuck with me. I’ve long been a fan of the “mansion horror” films – you know, those in which a dozen or less friends spend the night in some massive home and fall victim to some entity throughout the labyrinthine quarters. Cliché setting? You bet. Can I get enough of them? Absolutely not.
John Carl Buechler’s FX work might not have ever reached the level on which Stan Winston operated, but his creations are certainly identifiable and iconic in their own right. The ghoulies don’t always appear as real flesh & blood creatures, often looking like a hand puppet being stretched and manipulated into emoting (because they are), but the designs are very distinct and creative. Despite title billing, these little beasties get far less screen time than Jonathan and his quest to be Satan’s top pupil.
If there’s one memorable scene in the film, it has to be the final battle featuring Malcolm vs. Wolfgang. Two words: eye lasers. So many eye lasers.
When it comes to the topic of sequels that trump the original, there’s no question that Ghoulies II (1988) belongs on that list. The first film featured a number of lulls when the eponymous creatures aren’t on screen, with the human characters coming across as nothing more than archetypal fodder waiting to be slaughtered. Ghoulies II ups the ante with a better story and much more action from the ghoulies, this time taking the film into dark comedy territory instead of trying to play it straight.
Satan’s Den, a traveling carnival house of horrors, is in danger of being shuttered permanently if business doesn’t pick up. The proprietor, going by the avuncular title of Uncle Ned (Royal Dano), is a booze-soaked, weary old man who would just as soon drink his problems away. When Ned and his nephew, Larry (Damon Martin), stop by a gas station one night to refuel their truck, a handful of wayward ghoulies hitch a ride on their vehicle. Back at the site of the carnival, P. Hardin (J. Downing), an accountant for the carnival’s parent company, lays down an ultimatum: Satan’s Den must turn a profit this weekend or face closure. This does not sit well with the workers. In a drunken stupor Ned finds an occult book lying around and recites a passage, at which point the previously hidden ghoulies appear. The little beasts prove to be a hit with a couple of kids, who excitedly tell other carnival attendees to head into Satan’s Den to see the mayhem. Little does everyone know the “fake” dead bodies are actually those of guests from earlier in the night. Once the secret is out, the little demons wreak havoc on the carnival crowd, munching limbs, causing chaos and – finally, gloriously – killing a man by way of toilet. Larry has to find a way to complete the ritual his now-departed Uncle Ned was trying to finish earlier in hopes of vanquishing the ghoulies for good.
This movie is a ton of fun, encapsulating everything that makes ‘80s horror so endearing. First off, the ghoulies are back and indeed better than ever. Buechler’s FX are more refined, with increased movement and better sculpting evident on ghoulies new and old. The use of stop-motion in a few key scenes also allows for a greater range of activity and mischief. My favorite ghoulie has always been the creepy cat thing, and he (it?) gets a lot of face time once again. For the first time we also see a giant ghoulie, one which is sent up from the depths as a sort of “cleaner” during the climax. Unlike the first film, the ghoulies are the stars here and their screen time is much longer than before. There’s a great scene later in the film featuring all of the ghoulies terrorizing the carnival crowds, filled with equal parts comedy and horror.
Royal Dano rules, too. That guy was such a character, managing to make minor roles unforgettable. He’s the first actor that comes to mind if someone mentions Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988). His characters often had a peculiar way about them; Dano’s expressive face and affable demeanor reminded you of grandpa at a holiday dinner after a few drinks. His presence here adds more gravitas than Nance’s did in the first film.
Ghoulies II is the highlight in a series that went on to see the ghoulies go to college before returning for a fourth and final installment that might as well be in name only, were it not for Peter Liapis returning. This double feature set is just the sort of satanic ‘80s schlock that is endlessly entertaining to the right crowd. Ghoulies hasn’t aged as well as I’d hoped, but Ghoulies II actually wound up being better than the modest entry my memory recalled.
It’s hard to be impressed by the 1.85:1 1080p image for Ghoulies, which is only a few notches up from DVD quality. Whether it’s a case of a poor HD cleanup, or just low-budget limitations becoming apparent (more likely), either way it’s not much to crow about. There is a pervasive softness to the picture, robbing it of sharp details and background definition. Even close-ups hardly yield enough fine detail to be remarkable. Grain can be a little clumpy, but at least it hasn’t been digitally scrubbed away. Black levels fare the worst, often appearing hazy and closer to grey. Colors offer greater saturation than any previous home video versions, though. Image depth is minimal, due to flat cinematography. At least the print is mostly clean?
Ghoulies II also sports a 1.85:1 1080p image, though it is one that looks far superior compared to the first film. The kaleidoscope of colors seen at the carnival pop off the screen with strong vibrancy; saturation is excellent. Black levels, too, are stable and rich, rarely hazy. Film grain remains intact and cinematic. Detail looks much more like HD, and even scenes set within shadow retain an appreciable level of definition. The print used is in great shape aside from one shot, when a ghoulie attacks a dunk tank clown, which is incredibly scratched and damaged. But that’s one minor mistake in an otherwise great looking picture.
Both films get the same treatment in the audio department – English DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound or 2.0 mono – and it’s hard to say if either is best. Ghoulies features a nice touch of low-end bass to the main theme; dialogue is balanced and clean, and though the mid-level sound design doesn’t allow for much range it capably get the job done. Ghoulies II perhaps features a bit more depth to the track, allowing for increased dynamics and better placement of discreet effects. Dialogue, however, becomes a little problematic when voices are raised, exhibiting signs of clipping and distortion. Immersion is better here, with the sounds of the carnival enveloping viewers quite nicely. Subtitles are included in English for both films.
Ghoulies features the following extra features:
Director Luca Bercovici is on hand for an audio commentary that starts off strong but quickly loses steam before becoming a wasteland of chatter. Enjoy the first 15-20 minutes of recollections, then bail out.
“From Toilets to Terror – The Making of Ghoulies” runs for about thirty minutes. Charles Band kicks this off by discussing the project’s early beginnings, when it was to be called “Beasties” and he was set for the director’s chair, with Stan Winston to supply creature FX. That obviously never came to fruition. Actor Michael Des Barres has some wonderful stories to share here, and he’s quite a distinguished guy, too. FX artist John Vulich talks about working with Buechler and creating the title monsters. Comprehensive, succinct and informative – it’s a great piece.
The film’s theatrical trailer and a still gallery (both in HD) are also included.
Ghoulies II features the following extras:
“More Toilets, More Terror – The Making of Ghoulies II” runs for just over sixteen minutes. After the success of the first film, a sequel was inevitable. This one was shot in Rome, using mostly Italian extras and crew, which made communication difficult for some of the principals.
A handful of alternate scenes are presented in full HD. This is all of the gore footage that was cut to secure a PG-13 rating. Frankly, it’s not all that graphic and these days could’ve been left in and still gotten a PG-13. It would have been cool to see it re-inserted, but that brings up a legal quandary Scream Factory wasn’t not prepared to tackle.
The theatrical trailer and a still gallery (both HD, though the trailer looks rough) are also included.
Ghoulies Special Features:
- Audio Commentary with director/co-writer Luca Bercovici
- New interviews with executive producer Charles Band, composer Richard Band, actor Michael Des Barres, and special effects makeup artist John Vulich
- Original Theatrical Trailer
Ghoulies II Special Features:
- New interviews with executive producer Charles Band, actress Kerry Remsen, actor Donnie Jeffcoat, and special effects artist Gino Crognale
- Rare Deleted Scenes
- Original Theatrical Trailer