Outside of perhaps Critters, the most popular and most successful Gremlins rip-off would have to be Ghoulies.
Ghoulies is one of those movies that everybody knows about but few have actually seen. A staple of the horror movie aisle at your local video store, many a passersby has glanced at the box cover a few dozen times, perhaps even chuckled at the tagline, but then paid it no mind. After all, who’d want to see a movie about little monsters that pop out of the toilet and bite their victims in the ass?
More people than you’d think, which is why this first installment in the Ghoulies franchise tends to disappoint, because that’s not even remotely the plot.
Jonathan Graves (Peter Liapis) and his girlfriend, Rebecca (Lisa Pelikan) have just moved into his father’s ramshackle old mansion. As Jonathan begins to clean the place up, he learns a terrible truth about the father he hardly knew: Daddy was a Satanist. As a mystic force takes possession of Jonathan, he begins to do all sorts of crazy things, like summon a horde of tiny monsters and even a pair of demonic midgets. Jonathan proceeds to invite six of his closest friends to the mansion for a party/slaughterfest which will bring about the resurrection of his evil father.
The title, the cover box and the trailer would lead you to believe that this movie is all about the Ghoulies; those mischievous little demons from Hell. That, however, is a lie. The Ghoulies themselves appear more as an afterthought included in the film, or at the very least, they were never intended to be the main focus. The title and marketing campaign are blatantly a tactic intended to ride the wave of Gremlins popularity. Future Ghoulies installments would fit the public’s perception of the franchise more accurately, focusing on the rascally hijinks of the murderous little title monsters. As it stands, however, this first film really has nothing to do with them.
The spotlight of the film is cast firmly upon Jonathan and his battle with the dominating specter of his demented father. Liapis carries the lead role very well (and would go on to reprise the character for Ghoulies IV), but it’s more the fault of the goofy costume design and special effects that cause this angle to fall flat. His flamboyant ritual gown, coupled with silly looking lightning bolts zapping out of plastic tridents will have you laughing when you really shouldn’t be.
Ghoulies, as you can guess, is fairly unfocused. The original plot is constantly at battle with the studio-mandated “just like Gremlins, we swear” additions, leaving several things to fall by the wayside. Worst of them all would have to be the character of Wolfgang (Jack Nance), whose character is just one hairy, walking “what the fuck?” moment waiting to happen. He appears as the caretaker (and surrogate father of Jonathon) at the beginning of the film, though for all the world he seems deeply senile (which makes one wonder how he could have possibly raised a child). He then disappears from the film entirely after the first ten or so minutes, yet his voice remains, providing narration that explains the obvious to us. The narration is both unnecessary and uneven, appearing randomly and without warning sporadically throughout the film. Wolfgang makes his final appearance during the film’s climax as a sloppy means to resolve the conflict.
Ghoulies isn’t all bad, though. The Ghoulies steal whatever scenes they manage to actually appear in (the dinner table sequence is my favorite) and come in a wide variety of flavors. There’s Fish Ghoulie, Mole Ghoulie, Cat Ghoulie and Bat Ghoulie. Though they do kind of run together in this movie, Ghoulies II and Ghoulies III: Ghoulies go to College would go on to make them more individualistic. The set design is wonderful, with the Graves Estate looking suitably overgrown and creepy, but with a refreshing Beverly Hills feel that sets it apart from your average Scooby Doo haunted house. There aren’t a lot of stand-out kills to comment on, but the bit with the clown doll is definitely one of the coolest sequences in the film.
Ghoulies is a movie that, to this very day, continues to suffer from marketing misdirection. The picture itself isn’t abysmal, just somewhat boring and fairly disappointing if you were expecting a Gremlins clone. If that is what you’re after, though, then be sure to check out the second and third installments, though avoid the fourth, as it has more in common with this film than the others.