Straight From the Crapper: The Ghoulies Series

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Not everyone will love, or even appreciate, Ghoulies, but it’s hard not to at least admire a series that boldly and proudly hails itself as straight from the crapper. Producer Charles Band actually went out of his way to associate one of his first franchise successes with the toilet. As the story goes, the idea of a demon emerging from a commode didn’t even occur to him until a post-production marketing meeting (over a bowl of pot, naturally), at which point Band fell so in love with the idea that he ordered a quick reshoot to actually get that shot into the movie—apropos of absolutely nothing, of course, but this anecdote perfectly summarizes Ghoulies, a nonsense series that somehow lasted for an entire decade.

It’s arguable that even Band himself—who would become no stranger to franchising the damnedest ideas at Full Moon—couldn’t have seen that coming. For a film whose tagline (“They’ll Get You in the End”) registered as its best joke, Ghoulies proved to have remarkable enough legs at video stores to spawn three sequels. Truly, the 80s were an age of excess. However, even as it stretched into the 90s, the series remained (mostly) steadfast in delivering the cheap thrills emblematic of the era’s Z-movie entertainment. 

Even this stuff has a platonic ideal, and Ghoulies—for all its rubbery warts and bathroom humor—is it. As Band himself attests, without its success, there might not have been an Empire Pictures, much less a Full Moon Pictures. It’s also the franchise that didn’t launch a thousand shits, since it scared many younger viewers right off of the toilet.  

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GHOULIES [1984] (d. Luca Bercovici, w. Luca Bercovici, Jefery Levy)

One of the biggest surprises of Ghoulies is that it’s hardly about demons at all, toilet-dwelling or otherwise. Rather, it’s a tale of a son (Peter Liapis) reconnecting with his warlock father (Michael Des Barres) who tried to offer him up as a ritual sacrifice. With dear old (and very estranged) dad now deceased, Jonathan Graves inherits both the family mansion and an obsession with black magic. Eventually—and I do mean eventually—the titular Ghoulies begin to raise hell on Jonathan’s party animal friends (including Mariska Hartigay in her first screen appearance), and many viewers have cited their delayed entrance into the film as a source of consternation.

It’s a fair criticism, perhaps, but it’s not like Ghoulies doesn’t provide plenty of wild diversions in the meantime.  Everything from breakdancing interludes to zombies to wizard battles is unleashed during the course of 82 rowdy minutes. Something is always being flung against the proverbial wall here, and, even if any of it barely sticks, the film’s commitment to relentless inanity and utter lack of irony is admirable. Present-day descendants of Ghoulies—those films that try to be “so bad that they’re good”—could take a cue from both its sincerity and some of its FX craftsmanship (it might be low budget, but effects maestro John Carl Buechler cooks up some lovely gags and creatures). Ghoulies doesn’t have time to wink at its audience because it’s shooting lasers out of its eyes. 

Ghoulies is also a noteworthy exhibit for any examination of Band’s career. If mere trademarks and preoccupations are enough to recognize an auteur, then the case for Band begins here. In addition to wizards and tiny creatures, Ghoulies features dwarves and an animate doll, all of which would become staples during Band’s reign at Full Moon Pictures. At the very least, you know a Charles Band production when you see one, and Ghoulies is undeniably his baby, right down to the marketing and box art that helped make it the stuff of video store legend.    

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GHOULIES II [1988] (d. Albert Band, w. Charlie Dolan, Dennis Paoli)

Speaking of Band’s trademarks, it’s hardly surprising that he ushered a Ghoulies sequel to video shelves a few years later. Watching this franchise in retrospect actually feels like a process of it moving closer towards expectations, as Part II delivers pure, unfiltered Ghoulies mayhem. Appropriately situated at a travelling carnival, Ghoulies II is one big funhouse attraction lined with ghouls, gore, and puke. The title monsters—in an array of sizes and now billed as Fish, Rat, Cat, and Flying Ghoulie—take center stage with a bit of a meaner streak (but not so mean that it transcends a PG-13 rating, alas). 

The height of the Ghoulies franchise, this is an ideal follow-up that goes bigger (but perhaps not crazier) than its predecessor. While it might lack the original’s kitchen sink approach, it’s still a righteous blend of killer acid baths, a Shakespeare-spouting dwarf (Phil Fondacaro) giant demon conjuring, and W.A.S.P. riffs.  Yuppies and dopey, boom box-toting teenagers alike fall prey to the little hellraisers, who disguise themselves as part of an attraction before blowing up the entire carnival.  An unabashed exercise in goofball filmmaking, Ghoulies II is a great party movie that also makes good on the whole toilet demon premise. Finally, someone actually gets it in the end, which perhaps says it all.     

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GHOULIES GO TO COLLEGE [1991] (d. John Carl Buechler, w. Brent Olson)

By the time Ghoulies made its 90s debut, Band had moved on to Full Moon, leaving a void to be filled by a returning Buechler, now in the director’s chair in addition to coordinating the FX. Set (obviously) at a college during the middle of a prank war, the film unleashes the Ghoulies—who are now incessantly rambunctious chatterboxes—on a pack of unsuspecting coeds when they’re summoned by a frustrated professor (Kevin McCarthy, in keeping with the theme of subjecting veteran actors to the Ghoulies franchise). 

Depending on your disposition, “Kevin McCarthy conjures demons from a toilet” sounds like a logline made in heaven or hell, and, for about 30 minutes, Ghoulies III threatens to unseat the second film from the franchise’s porcelain throne. A Rube Goldberg-style prank sequence (kicked off by a guy taking a shot to the nuts, it should be noted), that climaxes with Kane Hodder riding a mop bucket, sets the tone and announces that the series has moved firmly into frat comedy mode.  It evolves into a hyperactive, but remarkably (and briefly) tolerable mixture of raunchy, macho buffoonery and Saturday morning cartoons—with all of the colorful, obnoxious commercials thrown in for good measure. 

Fittingly, it operates on a 9-year-old’s conception of what college will be like: in lieu of any schoolwork, it’s all pranks, panty raids, pizza, robots, naked coeds, comic books, and the monolith from 2001 reimagined as a stack of Miler Light cans. Naturally, the Ghoulies fit right in—even more so than the carnival in the previous film, this might be their natural habitat: raising hell alongside a pack of bros with bad taste and even worse fashion sense (Jason Scott Lee wears the most hideous hat you’ll ever see here). 

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Before long, though, the sugar rush wears off and the film comes crashing down from its high: in the end, Ghoulies Goes to College is exhaustingly juvenile, even for this franchise. Buechler attempts to reimagine the franchise as a long-lost Three Stooges vehicle with toilet monsters, but only succeeds in crafting a somewhat alienating entry. Just as running zombies created a firestorm of controversy, I like to think that talking Ghoulies resulted in a sect of franchise purists who dismissed this and the following entry as apocryphal chapters in Ghoulies lore. 

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GHOULIES IV [1994] (d. Jim Wynorski, w. Mark Sevi)

You really can’t blame anyone for wanting to ignore this, the final entry in the Ghoulies saga. If Part III is problematic, then IV is downright heretical, as the Ghoulies are no longer puppets but rather loquacious dwarves in suits, a change that isn’t nearly as galling as the decision to make one an ethnic caricature and name him “Ghoulie Dark.” You could never make Ghoulies IV in the year 2015—nor should anyone really want to.  Even still, the Ghoulie duo here hardly figures into the actual plot of a movie called Ghoulies IV (maybe it’s an homage to their limited role in the original).

Oddly enough, the original film does actually inform this prequel, as Peter Liapis returns as Jonathan Graves, now a high-strung cop who has put his sorcerous ways behind him. When an insane ex-girlfriend (Barbara Alyn Woods) opens a portal to a netherworld at the behest of a shadowy Faustian figure named, er, Faust, she unwittingly allows the Ghoulies to cross over into our world, where they proceed to…well, they mostly wander the streets of L.A. and make bad jokes.  At one point, they hop into a car with a prostitute, and we don’t really see much of them anymore.   One thing’s for sure: they’ve skipped the anti-hero stage and (speaking of Saturday morning cartoons) become full-blown heroes—or have they always sort of been heroes for killing obnoxious jerks?

In the meantime, Ghoulies IV is actually a dumb, tone-deaf cop movie that alternates between gritty, overcooked drama and outrageous action beats. Wynorski is at his best with the latter, particularly whenever he’s staging insane convenience store shootouts or martial-arts sequences featuring leather-clad babes. What little fun is to be had with this effort is in its director’s trademark commitment to the sort of cheap thrills that appeal to 10-year-olds, so maybe this is a faithful Ghoulies entry, after all?

Were there more inspired bits to Ghoulies IV, it wouldn’t be such an abominable ending to what many consider to be an already abominable franchise. Unlike the previous entries, however, this never commits itself to enough dumb fun, and you spend most of its running time wondering how it even got made. You wonder if it started life as some other script before eventually latching itself onto a fading Ghoulies legacy—if not for a flashback to the events of the first film, you’d hardly recognize it as belonging in the same franchise. An oral history explaining Ghoulies IV would likely be more entertaining than Ghoulies IV.  Despite lacking the familiar toilet iconography, you might say this is where the franchise really went to shit.

One of the parting jokes in the final film hints at a Ghoulies IV Part II, a sequel that has obviously gone unproduced two decades later.  Has anyone ever been disappointed by this?  With seemingly every property being revived, it seems likely that the few people holding out for a fifth Ghoulies film will eventually be satisfied—but should they be? Given that the series flamed out shortly after its 80s hangover, maybe it’s better off left flushed away, a relic of a past  that seems more distant with each revisit.   Besides, you just know it’d lead to something like Ghoulies vs. Sharknado.  Nobody needs to see that, so let’s be grateful that we live in a world that already has four Ghoulies movies that wrecked an entire generation’s potty training.

Brett Gallman is a member of the Online Film Critics Society.  He was raised in and around video stores and hasn’t stopped talking about horror movies ever since.  You can find him on Twitter @brettgallman.

Ghoulies I & II are now available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory

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Weekend: Jul. 18, 2019, Jul. 21, 2019

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