Monday, October 12, 2015

HubrisWeen 2015, Day 7: Ghoulies II (1988)

Even if you're only passingly familiar with producer Charles Band, you probably know of his reputation for loving stories about small monsters killing people. This obsession is usually associated with the Puppet Master films, but it started several years before that. The actual basic idea for the film was actually being tossed around by Band as early as 1983, but it's pretty obvious that the first Ghoulies really came to life after Band saw Gremlins. After all, the original title was "Beasties" and that wouldn't fool somebody into accidentally renting it, thinking it was related. I also would be willing to bet the wacky hijinks that the "Ghoulies" get into in the first film wouldn't have existed without Joe Dante's film.

It's strange, then, that the first Ghoulies should miss the central lesson of the film it was trying to cash in on: the titular monsters are not even close to the focus of the movie. They're merely tools of the various sorcerers facing off, and they aren't even the major antagonists of the film. It feels rather like a wasted opportunity.

Luckily, somebody was taking notes when Empire Pictures decided to continue the franchise four years later. (Intriguingly, this would be two years before Gremlins 2: The New Batch came around) When Ghoulies II was written, they wisely decided that the main focus should be on the titular creatures.

The film opens as a semi-truck emblazoned with "Satan's Den" on the side makes its way toward Greenville, the current site of the carnival it belongs to. Driving the truck is Larry (Damon Martin), while his uncle Ned (Royal Dano) sits beside him, polishing off a bottle of whiskey. Ned keeps commenting about how the moon is the fullest he's ever seen, which leads me to believe he's never seen the moon before since the moon we see is slightly more than three quarters full. Ned chides his nephew for not paying more attention to the moon if he wants to be a great magician like his uncle used to be. Larry is a bit more concerned with paying attention to the truck, because the radiator is overheating. They'll have to hope there's a garage on the way.

(Incidentally, I can't help but find all the talk of a "full moon" entertaining because Charles Band would form Full Moon Entertainment the next year, after Empire Pictures went belly up)

Meanwhile, a priest (Anthony Dawson, a prolific character actor) is fleeing through some misty woods with a wriggling and snarling sack slung over his shoulder. He's being pursued by three guys in red hoods, presumably devil worshipers of some kind. He manages to escape from them by hiding in a closed garage that had left a back door unlocked, which he then bolts behind him. However, he doesn't bother to wait long before turning on the lights inside the garage. I guess the devil worshipers didn't want their bag back all that badly, since they don't immediately bust their way in. To his delight, the priest finds a huge barrel of something labelled "solvent" in the garage--whatever it is is bubbling and giving off a mist, and is just sitting there without a lid. Boy, that's a lawsuit waiting to happen.

The priest offers up a prayer to God to stop the devil worshipers and demon spawn before tossing the bag into the barrel of acid. Unfortunately, he missed one of the demon spawn, because just then the Bat Ghoulie smashes through the window on the door. It makes sure he sees it before swooping down and knocking the priest into the acid.

More like a flying squirrel than a bat, but close enough.
Larry and Uncle Ned arrive at the gas station, and Larry walks inside to ensure that nobody is around. He almost sees the skeleton inside the barrel before Ned calls to him for assistance. Once he walks out, the priest's skeleton floats to the surface--and then the Ghoulies surface as well, completely unharmed. The Ghoulies don't have official names that I know of, so I'll just go by the names given online for them: the Fish Ghoulie looks like a toothy baby doll got merged with a gill man; the Cat Ghoulie looks a bipedal cat with cloven hooves on its hind feet; the Rat Ghoulie looks like a bipedal rat without the tail; and the Toad Ghoulie looks like a lizard got merged with, well, a toad.

All of them, as with the first film, are John Carl Buechler creations. Though this time around they look a hell of a lot better. You'll also notice there's no way all four of them could've fit into the bag the priest was carrying.

"Hello, hello, hello, hello!"
While Ned and Larry are making sure the radiator is cooled down, the Ghoulies spy the "Satan's Den" logo and take it as an invitation. They walk over to the truck--via some really good stop-motion animation, courtesy of David Allen--where the Rat Ghoulie unlocks the back of the truck and they all climb in. The Bat Ghoulie swoops in at the last moment before they close the doors behind them. Of course, they don't lock the doors behind themselves, so you'd think that either Ned or Larry would notice that, but they don't.

Then again, Ned is both drunk and preoccupied with their oncoming doom when the "money man" arrives at the carnival. He's referring, of course, to P. Hardin (J. Downing), whom we see pulling in to the carnival grounds the next morning in a fancy car. He's the son of the carnival's owner, and given he looks like every coprorate douchebag character Kyle MacLachlan and James Spader ever played got spliced together, it's not hard to guess he's the human villain.

Hardin introduces himself to Sir Nigel Penneyweight (Phil Fondacaro!), who used to be a Shakespearean actor--and, indeed, won't ever stop quoting Shakespeare--but now works with the Satan's Den crew as the resident hobgoblin. Hardin wants all the carnies to meet with him in twenty minutes so he can law down the law. Nigel goes to inform Larry and Ned, bearing coffee, but Ned is passed out drunk again on the haunted house's electric chair. When he awakens to hear the news, Ned makes a quip about flipping the electric chair on--while Nigel complains about how hard it is to scare kids these days.

Incidentally, the haunted house is basically all set up, so I'm not sure where the Ghoulies found to hide during the set up process, but they managed. At any rate, at the carnival meeting Hardin announces that this weekend's show will be a trial run. Any acts that are not showing a profit will be out on their asses after the weekend's over. It's probably not a good thing that Ned was so eager to heckle Hardin during the man's speech, since Hardin advises that Satan's Den has been losing money for some time. So Hardin's got an especially serious hate-on for them.

Unfortunately for Larry, Hardin definitely does not hate Larry's crush, Nicole Le Fevre (Kerry Remsen, who can be seen getting a cross carved into her forehead by the titular Pumpkinhead in the same year), who is one of the dancers in the bellydancing show. Speaking of which, the manager of the show, Ray (Mickey Knox), is having a bit of a dispute with one of the other dancers, Patty (Ames Morton). Seems she's found a guy in town and she always finds a guy in town and then disappears for the whole weekend. Well, Ray wants her to actually work the show this time, but his demands are interrupted when her cat runs off.

Following the cat, she ends up in Satan's Den. Unfortunately, the meowing she hears as she goes further in is not her cat. She finds out just a bit too late when she reaches into a sarcophagus and the Cat Ghoulie bites her and slashes at her with a straight razor. The Toad Ghoulie knocks her down and holds her feet, and then the Rat and Fish Ghoulies hold her arms down. The Cat Ghoulie advances on her with the straight razor drawn...

"So! You thought you would have me fixed, no? I FIX YOU!"
That evening, Hardin goes to see Nicole in the dressing room of her show. He wants to see her after the show, but she defers him a bit because she has several shows that night. So he convinces her to meet him after the last show. Meanwhile, a drunk Ned decides to start fiddling with a small grimoire he keeps in his trunk. He flips to a page about summoning demons and imps to do your biddig and half-heartedly reads it, whereupon the Ghoulies crawl forth from various hiding places to meet him. Incorrectly assuming he summoned the little demons*, Ned excitedly runs to fetch Nigel to show him. Of course, the Ghoulies deliberately hide from Nigel and Larry, and Larry--already short on his temper from Hardin's ultimatums--blows up at his drunk uncle for forcing them to make up for his slack. Nigel calms Larry down, and they lead Ned off to a back room to sleep it off.

[* I'm honestly not entirely sure why the filmmakers don't just have Ned summon the Ghoulies. It's not like there's any clear continuity between this film and the first, and the spells in that grimoire will turn out to be real deal later on]

Well, the business is slow for Satan's Den, of course. Two bratty kids, the elder just shy of adolescence, buy tickets despite the elder asserting that it's going to be lame. They're shortly followed by a group of five...teenagers? College kids? The leader of the group carries a red boombox and after Larry tells him he needs to turn the music, the guy gives him the finger--but actually listens and turns it off.

Hardin, meanwhile, is watching Ray advertise for the bellydancing show as Nicole and the other dancers gyrate out front in skimpy outfits. (Which sort of begs the question: if that's how they're dressed outisde the tent, what do they do for the show? Surely at a carnival they don't have a nude stripshow) Ray, bizarrely, advertises that the girls "slither on their bellies like..." before tapping his cane on the stage for the two groups of dancers on either side of him to finish in turn with, "Reptiles!"

Oh no, did he hire Strother Martin to supply his dancers?

Inside Satan's Den, the two kids are wandering around while the elder is being a twerp--kicking displays and stuff. Well, until they encounter the Rat Ghoulie gnawing on a severed doll head in the guillotine set-up. It spits some kind of goo on the older kid's shirt and he retaliates by producing a shuriken (!) and throws it at the fiend. It just catches it in its teeth and eats it. The kids decide that this makes the place awesome and they have to tell their friends about it.

The group of college kids have managed to lose their fifth wheel, and the couples decide they should ditch him. Which seems harsh until you see the guy wandering around trying to find them and you realize he's wearing the trademark late 80s/early 90s inexplicable vest but with dangling leather fringe. Surely even then he looked like a dumbass. Well the couples try to party in a side room, only for the Ghoulies to smash the leader's boombox. He pulls a switchblade on them, but the Bat Ghoulie swoops in and bites his hand so he drops it. He and his girlfriend decide to leave, but the other couple decide to stay and make out--whereupon the Rat ghoulie spits his goo on them, which apparently hardens quickly into a form of adhesive.

Unfortunately for the fifth wheel, when he finds the room his friends have already gone. The Cat Ghoulie has traded his straight razor for a switchblade and stabs him in the leg. When he collapses on a nearby table, it turns out to be the one beneath a pendulum. And before you know it, he's being stretched and the actually sharp (!) pendulum is swinging down towards his gut...

Larry is pleasantly surprised by the huge crowd that forms now, excited to see the "rats." seeing the two couples exit, the group leader clutching his hand and threatening to sue and the other couple all glued together, just works the crowd into a frenzy. Poor Nigel in his stifling hobgoblin suit (basically a gorilla suit with horns on the mask) is utterly ignored, because the crowd only wants to see the "rats." They get to see them, all right, as the Ghoulies are busy wrapping their latest victim's body in gauze to disguise him as a mummy. The crowd just thinks the Ghoulies are putting a prop mummy into its sarcophagus and cheer them on. They especially love it when the Cat and Rat Ghoulie high-five each other.

Well, okay, then.

Hardin notices the business that Satan's Den is doing and demands Larry show him the receipts immediately after closing. He then goes to see Nicole, whom he takes to Nigel's trailer. Nigel graciously allowed him to use it, you see. Nicole smirks and happily goes with him, at least partially to see his reaction to the fact that the trailer was designed with someone only 3'6" in mind. I'm--I'm not really sure what he expected. He did see Nigel, right?

Well, we won't know the details yet but Hardin had a reason beyond the amorous for inviting Nicole over, which is the only reason she went with him. But Larry doesn't know that when he sees them outside Nigel's trailer after closing. While he and Hardin are discussing the anomoly of how successful satan's Den has been that weekend, Ned wakes up inside the haunted house--and remembers seeing the imps earlier. The lights are off in the haunted house, so he picks up a magic lightbulb (the kind that light up when you hold them in your hand) and goes searching through the place--eventually finding that the pendulum has blood on it, and discovering that one of the mummy "props" has real blood on its belly.

He angrily yells at the Ghoulies that he didn't want this, and he is attacked by the Bat Ghoulie, dropping his light bulb. Outside, Hardin and Larry are interrupted by a police car pulling up with the boombox jerk and his girlfriend in the back. (Unlike any police car ever, the back doors open from the inside) They've come to find their missing friend and the broken boombox they left behind. Well, Hardin greases the palm of the head officer so they're ready to declare everything above board when Ned flips the switch to turn on the lights.

Ned has pulled his grimoire out and found a spell for "explusion of demons by demonic intercession," and this gets the Ghoulies good and agitated. The Fish Ghoulie bites him on the neck, but he just uses the blood to paint a rather subpar pentagram (the lines don't connect) and begin reciting the spell. The Cat Ghoulie stabs him in the chest with the switchblade, but it turns out his deck of playing cards protected him. "You can't kill me, I'm a Goddamn magician," he challenges, oblivious to the Rat Ghoulie gnawing through the electrical cord to the electric chair. He's interrupted in his second attempt at finishing the incantation when the Rat Ghoulie pokes him with the chewed-off cord and he is cartoonishly electrocuted to death.

Walking through the now dark exhibit, the cops, Larry, Hardin, and Nigel find Ned's body. The officer points out they'll have to investigate the death, but Hardin objects that everyone in the carnival would tell you that Ned as a drunk. He probably just tripped over something in the dark and electrocuted himself. The officers oddly accept this, even though it would still require some investigation even if it was an accident--and the dead man has an obvious wound on his neck. Then a grieving Larry pulls the neverending handkerchiefs out of his uncle's sleeve in order to cover his face.

I honestly have no idea if that was supposed to be funny or not.

Larry throws himself into his work the next day, trying to fix the Satan's Den's rig. Nigel tries to tell him not to throw his life away, wasting it away in the carnival. Larry snaps at Nigel, then later snaps at Nicole because she couldn't possibly understand what's going through. Well, for your information, douchecanoe, she could: Hardin wanted to talk to her because he found out she used to be part of a high wire act with her family, The Amazing Le Fevres, as part of the circus that Hardin's family bought out--until her brother fell off the wire in front of her, and missed the net. She's been afraid of heights ever since, which is why she refised Hardin's offer to start in a new high wire act. Larry apologizes for being a jerk and the two kiss. So, I guess they're a couple now?

Well, an angry Nigel goes to work fixing some of the Den's flying bats, only to drop his pliers. When he fnds them, they're lying next to a bloodied bracelet he recognizes as Penny's. And then the Ghoulies show themselves to him, which he reacts to by fleeing in terror. Well, Larry comes to man the ticket booth for Satan's Den for the night, only to find that somehow Hardin has legally seized the attraction (?) and has an armed guard to keep Larry out. He's fired Larry and Nigel, and also put a lien on Nigel's car just to be an extra dick about it.

The armed guard is oddly willing to let Larry barge into the place to claim some personal artifacts. While rifling through a trunk, Larry hears an odd noise and opens a different trunk to find Nigel cowering inside. Larry laughs off Nigel's talk of demons--until Nigel points out the Fish Ghoulie nearby. Nigel points out that creature's teeth match the bite on Ned's neck, and then the Fish Ghoulie helpfully confirms by launching itself across the room and sinking its teeth into Larry's chest. The other three pile onto Larry, while Nigel runs to get help.

The new ticket taker, the security guard, and the male halves of the couples from earlier (who have come back once again to find their friend) just laugh at Nigel's insistence that Larry is being attacked, before the two doofuses barge into the joint. Larry, meanwhile, is somehow holding his own against four little monsters made of teeth. He shakes them off by grabbing a bare wire for one of the displays (!) which somehow does not harm him beyond a minor burn on his hand, but shakes them loose. He rushes out, finding Nigel on the way, and they go to get guns from several of the carnies, and to enlist the aid of Ray, a strong man, and a fire eater.

They rush back to Satan's Den, but Hardin orders his guard to shoot them if they try to go in. The guard turns out to be less bloodthirsty than Hardin and just lets them go in. Hardin grabs the guard's shotgun, fires him, and follows the group in. They're just in time as the Ghoulies have gotten the head jerk into the guillotine and the other guy is under the pendulum, while the cackling patrons watch since they think it's part of the show. Nigel rushes the patrons out, while the others rescue the two morons. Hardin stares dumbly at the Ghoulies while the others try to kill the Ghoulies. Guns don't work, fire doesn't work, and even the strong man's attempt to choke the Rat Ghoulie just gets him a faceful of goop. And then Patty's corpse falls out of the iron maiden prop.

Hardin accuses Larry of bringing these creatures to the carnival, and they end up struggling over the shotgun, which blows a hole in the wall--letting the Ghoulies out into the carnival. Of course, they could have just walked out into the carnival at any time, but never mind that. Larry says they have to close the carival, but Hardin refuses and offers a reward to whomever catches one of the Ghoulies alive, so Larry punches him.

"Let's paint this town red! know, like blood?"
"We got it, Jeff!"
The Toad Ghoulie stops and ogles Nicole doing her act, causing her to scream when she sees it. Larry hears her and enlists her help, so they rush away for her to get dressed in actual clothes. And now it's time for the rampage sequence! At a strength test, involving a punching bag, the Cat Ghoulie sees some guy win a stuffed animal and responds by jumping into a huge boxing glove (?) and leaping at the guy, suckerpunching him the back of the head. At the bumper cars, the Toad Ghoulie and Rat Ghoulie work together: the Rat Ghoulie scares a woman out of her car and when she falls, the Toad Ghoulie runs her over.

Man, Fast & Furious 8 looks amazing.

 Meanwhile, a clown (no, I mean an actual clown) in a dunk tank finally annoys someone into hitting the mark. Unfortunately for the clown, the Fish Ghoulie is waiting in the tank and chews his arm off just above the elbow. (Which begs the question of why its teeth only did superficial damage to Ned and Larry) And then the Fish Ghoulie makes it to a rocket ship ride and unhooks the pod of a middle-aged couple, sending it flying into another tent and causing an explosion. Um, sure. This triggers a mass exodus from the carnival, during which Hardin hears a father tell his daughter that he's going to sue the owner into the next lifetime.

Larry, Nicole, and Nigel regroup and figure that they need a plan--they've seen that conventional weapons don't hurt the creatures, so Larry suggests they use a supernatural solution. After all, didn't Ned have the grimoire in his hand when he was killed?

Hardin meanwhile, is having a breakdown in the men's room. He doesn't see the Fish Ghouie starting to crawl out of the toilet behind him--as one did in the first film, briefly, as well as on its infamous poster. It hides in the toilet before Hardin apparently decides he needs to heed the call of nature and sits down on the toilet. And, finally, the film makes good on the original's tagline of, "They'll get you in the end," as we hear crunching, tearing sounds and Hardin screams in agony.

"Oh, God, no! I should've used Preparation H!"
Larry, Nicle, and Nigel find the grimoire and the blood-stained page that Ned looked at last. Rushing outside, they make a pentagram in the sand, and Nigel begins to read the incantation since he can actually pronounce Latin. Unfortunately, the Bat Gremin swoops down and yanks the grimoire out of Nigel's hands and drops it in a car at the top of a ferrish wheel. Rather than trying to get the ferris wheel turned back on, they decide someone has to climb up--and Nicole asserts she's the only one who can do it. She climbs up to the top, dodges a token attempt by the Bat Ghoulie to knock her down, and tosses the book down to the others. They fall to the ground to avoid the Bat Ghoulie and finish the incantation.

Well, the incantation makes the ground shake, and then a crack opens up and a huge, clawed hand reaches out of the ground--and snatches the Bat Ghoulie out of the air. Then the creature the hands belong to rises from the ground, revealing itself to be a Fish Ghoulie, if that Ghoulie were about seven feet tall. It sniffs out the other Ghoulies and begins tracking them down. The Cat Ghoulie is easy prey, since it's focused on a shooting game. Down the gullet it goes, whole.
This is a very high brow site, so I won't make a joke here about eating pus--damn it!
The Toad Ghoulie has buried itself in a popcorn machine, but that's not enough to save it. Bye bye, Toad Ghoulie! You were always my favorite. The Rat Ghoulie makes a stand on the platform of the hammer-style strength test, which results in it getting flattened before being devoured. Unfortunately, the Giant Ghoulie doesn't just disappear--though we in the audience know that the Fish Ghoulie is still alive--and it assumes that Nigel is a ghoulie. No time for searching the grimoire for another spell, the others grab Nigel and head to his trailer to barricade themselves in.

When the beast shakes the trailer, Nigel's hobgoblin suit falls out of the closet and it suddenly occurs to Larry that maybe the beasts are tough on the outside but not the inside. He quickly fashions a Molotov cocktail and, with Nigel's aid, stuffs the suit full of clothes and shoves the Molotov into it with the wick sticking out of one eye. They offer it to the Giant Ghoulie, who immediately swallows it whole, somehow without dousing the wick. Sure enough, it goes boom, and the resulting fireball then returns to the Hell that spawned it.

The next day, Larry and Nicole load up her car and Larry leaves Satan's Den in Nigel's hands before driving off. The camera pans over to the men's room trailer, and we hear the Fish Ghoulie flusing something and cackling. The End.

And people worry about snakes in their toilets. Bah!
I had seen the cover for Ghoulies in the video store, of course, but my actual first experience with it was at one of the first sleepovers I ever went to when I was maybe nine. It was a pretty perfect movie for that, but even then I recall A) having no clue what the hell was going on and B) not thinking it was any good. Years later, I would pick Ghoulies II up from the video store and immediately wished I had seen it at the party instead.

Back then I usually watched most movies I rented several times before returning them, and I definitely enjoyed this one each time--even if I wished the Toad Ghoulie had been the survivor instead of the Fish Ghoulie. However, like many things I never bothered revisiting it for years and didn't bother with the third or fourth films at all. (Still haven't, but maybe some day) Then I saw the double feature DVD of this film and the original Ghoulies in Half Price Books and had to grab it.

Sure enpough, Ghoulies was still not very good, but Ghoulies II was just as fun as I had remembered--even if it was slightly more profane than I remembered. See, the original theatrical release was rated R but once it hit video, it was reduced to PG-13, like the first film. The DVD uses the theatrical cut, but near as I can figure, the only difference is that a few uses of the word "fuck" were trimmed, because the film isn't any gorier than I recall. And it certainly doesn't have any nudity. Really, I have to wonder why the film wasn't cut down to PG-13 to begin with, since a lot of its dark sense of humor seems to be tailored to the tastes of the older kids and teenagers an R-rating would exclude from seeing it.

Simply put, this film is a delight. It wastes only the barest amount of time with character development, and unlike the first film it actually understands that the Ghoulies are the entire reason we are watching it in the first place. So the film delivers them in spades, and makes stopping them the focus of the film instead of whatever bullshit wizard battle formed the central conflict of the first film. Sure, the budget clearly didn't extend far enough to really give us a Ghoulie rampage in the climax, but they did he best they could and the Ghoulie puppets definitely look as good as can really be expected--and the stop-motion sequences are geninely excellent.

While Ghoulies II is hardly as good as, say, Critters 2: The Main Course--and certainly not so good that I fear spoiling its plot beats--there's no denying that it's a damn fun entry in the "pint-sized killer beasties" genre. If that's your thing, check it out. You'll definitely have a blast.

And don't forget to check your toilet for Ghoulies.

Today's review brought to you by the letter G! Hit the banner above to see what the other Celluloid Zeroes chose for G!

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