I love movies about weird little monsters. Gremlins and Critters were two of my favorite things as a kid. I discovered Ghoulies right in the middle of all of that and was allowed to rent them because they weren’t actually rated R. And I loved the central creatures right away. But even as a kid, I was a little confused by how long the original Ghoulies took to get where it was going. The titular monsters barely feature into it at all. As an adult, I started to realize that Ghoulies never actually meant to center on the monsters. They were never what the picture was building towards. They’re an afterthought.
Bizarrely enough, Ghoulies is a cult movie—not in the sense that it’s a cult classic even though it is, but in the sense that it’s literally about a satanic cult. A man named Jonathan Graves and his wife move into his family home. He knows nothing about himself, where he comes from, his whole family history was sort of kept from him. As he explores this mansion, he comes to uncover his father’s occult obsession.
Ghoulies is interesting as a satanic thriller, as Jonathan’s descent into the occult and black magic all essentially stem from a hunger to reconnect with his roots. These are not things he ever thought about before, but they’re the obsessions of a father he never knew.
Ghoulies is absolutely an Empire Pictures movie with all of the campy eccentricities that go along with that. It feels very much in the vein of features like Dungeonmaster. There’s no doubt that it feels at home within the pantheon of its parent studio, the only problem is that it’s a completely different kind of film than what it is advertised to be.
The ghoulies themselves are window dressing. They don’t matter. They don’t even really get any of the cool death scenes. There’s so much else going on in this movie that they don’t need to be there—in fact, they’re actually kind of distracting. It’s a problem when the titular monster slow the feature down and take away from the main plot rather than drive it forward.
Every shot of them looks like an insert, a close-up injected into a scene that probably had nothing to do with them to begin with. Amazingly, though, Ghoulies was always meant to be about little monsters. Its original incarnation was an idea called Beasties that Charles Band had planned to direct himself, with special creature effects by Stan Winston.
Instead, it wound up being directed by Luca Bercovici with effects provided by John Carl Buechler who, in addition to things like Friday the 13th Part VII and Troll, would eventually direct Ghoulies Go to College.
Empire movies never really had the luxury of extensive reshoots, but they often had significant post-production phases wherein the monsters would be realized, so in that respect the scene-saving insert shots make sense. What doesn’t make sense is how Ghoulies was allowed to go off the rails and virtually abandon its central idea in the first place. If Empire had just committed to making this a bizarre satanic obsession flick, that could have been great. It could have really shined as one of their more imaginative efforts.
But as it stands, the final product is so confusingly attempting to stretch in wildly different directions. The story is played sincere and serious, the horror attempts to be foreboding and form a sincere sense of atmosphere, but the creatures are campy and cheesy and ridiculous whenever they show up.
Ghoulies was one of Empire’s most profitable releases due to its marketing. The poster is iconic, featuring a green little monster popping out of the toilet bowl with the tagline reading “They’ll get you in the end.” It’s exactly the kind of tongue-in-cheek, irreverent horror that Empire was known for at the time. But the advertisements had next to nothing to do with the feature they were promoting. The shot of the ghoulies popping out of the toilet didn’t actually appear, save for a very quick insert just to say that they did it. But they did not get anyone in the end, so people were disappointed.
Luckily, Band and company to their credit realized the mistake with the way Ghoulies was marketed. All of that word of mouth led to enough ticket sales to warrant a sequel and when that time came around, they made sure that the ghoulies themselves would be front-and-center.
As a result, Ghoulies II is a really, really fun creature feature that gives its title characters their due. Had the first not been somewhat mishandled, we might not have gotten a sequel that shined a spotlight on its little monsters and embraced the inherent silliness of the core concept. For that, my hat goes off to Ghoulies, frustrating as it might always be.