Ghoulies (1984) Retrospective

Malcolm is about to sacrifice his child named Jonathan Graves when his mother, Anastasia, places a talisman around his neck that shocks Malcolm. He orders a participant named Wolfgang to take the child away, and sacrifices her instead. Twenty-one years later, an adult Jonathan and his girlfriend Rebecca inherit his late father’s estate, where they find several books on magic and a basement full of occult paraphernalia. When they later throw a party and invite their friends, Jonathan recruits them to perform a ritual in the basement for fun. Everyone leaves when nothing happens, but a small creature begins to materialize in the basement.

The next day, Jonathan tells Rebecca of his decision to quit college and work on the estate instead, which she expresses concern. While cleaning up the house, Malcolm influences Jonathan to go into the basement to perform another ritual. Rebecca’s concern grows when Jonathan refuses to eat, explaining that he is fasting. That evening, he conjures several creatures called Ghoulies and proclaims as their master, demanding them to hide their existence from everyone but him. One day, Rebecca comes home to find Jonathan performing a ritual, much to her shock. He explains that he is trying to learn about his parents he never knew, and promises to stop his behavior. While they both lay in bed, a Ghoulie draws an occult diagram which prompts Jonathan to chant in another language, and a furious Rebecca leaves him. Jonathan summons two dwarves named Grizzel and Greedigut to his service, who promise to give him everything he desires. They explain that he must perform a dangerous ritual with seven other people to obtain the knowledge and power he seeks. Later, Rebecca returns and asks Jonathan to leave with her, but he refuses. He then reveals his glowing eyes to her and she runs away, but the dwarfs bewitch her to return to Jonathan. He invites his friends and bewitches them to participate in the ritual. As Jonathan chants, Malcolm is resurrected from the grave. After the ceremony, Jonathan’s friends remain oblivious and are invited to stay the night.

Malcolm proclaims himself as their real master to the Ghoulies and dwarfs, and commands them to kill the group. Meanwhile, Jonathan apologizes to Rebecca and breaks the spell by placing the talisman around her neck, but she falls into a deep sleep. She eventually wakes up to see Jonathan in a trance, and runs away. After she removes the talisman around her neck, the Ghoulies attack her and she falls down a flight of stairs. Jonathan brings her to the basement to resurrect her, where he finds the dead bodies of his friends underneath sheets. Malcolm appears with the dwarfs, revealing that he used Jonathan to resurrect him in order to capture his youth and sacrifice him. As a battle ensues, Malcolm resurrects Rebecca to distract Jonathan, but the dwarfs alert him of the trap. Wolfgang appears with his own magical powers and fights off Malcolm. The house begins to crumble, and Wolfgang defeats Malcolm before they both disappear. Jonathan’s friends and Rebecca are resurrected, and they escape to drive away as the dwarfs watch. Riding with Jonathan and Rebecca, Mike asks about what happened, but Jonathan assures him it is over. However, Mike is alarmed when the Ghoulies rise behind him.

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“The GHOULIES will get you in the end,” say the ads, picturing a water ghoulie rising from a toilet bowl. Unfortunately, the film isn’t nearly as amusing as the ad campaign, but this Charles Band production does have the ghoulies themselves to offer, intriguing, puppet mechanisms created by rising low-budget makeup star John Carl Buechler (say Beckler).

A graduate of Roger Corman’s New World school of filmmaking, Buechler’s best-known work until GHOULIES was the startling Klaus Kinski decapitation scene from Aaron Lipstadt’s ANDROID, produced by Corman. Buechler, a makeup practitioner from the midwest (Illinois and Missouri), got his start in Hollywood working for Stan Winston (The Island (1980) and Rick Baker (The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981). After a spate of little seen solo low-budget assignments, Buechler found a home al producer Charles Band’s Empire International Pictures.

“What really attracted me to working with Charles Bandis that since Roger Corman, I haven’t seen such a ‘no bullshit’ altitude from anybody,” said Buechler “I’ve been dealing with the Hollywood scene for some time. There is a frame of mind here, what George Lucas calls the cocktail party atmosphere.’ People don’t say what they mean, they say what sounds good. When Band tells you something, he sticks to it.’

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To entice Buechler to take on the GHOULIES effects, Band offered the promise of a future directing assignment, a cherished goal for Buechler. Within weeks, Buechler was directing a segment of Band’s horror anthology The Dungeonmaster (1984) and currently has TROLL in development with Band, an ambitious fantasy project that will mark Buechler’s feature film debut as director.

GHOULIES is directed by another first-timer, actor Luca Bercovici, according to Buechler the son of the producer of SHOGUN, and features cameos by Jack Nance of ERASERHEAD fame and horror queen Bobbie Bresee. Inevitably, the film will be seen as a rip-off of GREMLINS, though the story is quite different, and Band was trying to put together a film called BEASTIES, with makeup artist Stan Winston directing, long before the Spielberg film.

“There’s a lot of the little creatures in the film, and they do a lot of neat things,” Buechler said. “We have ghoulies from every environment. We have ghoulies from the water; we have ghoulies from the sky; we have ghoulies from the ground. They burrow out, or they fly, or they’re domesticated, or they’re wild.”

Ghoulies take the place of weapons in the story, a change from the script by Bercovici and Jelery Levy, a change suggested by Buechler.

“When the script was originally given to me, two little imps played by actors were supposed to kill people with an axe,” explained Buechler. “How many times in movies have you seen people killed with an axe? Too many, right? So, l suggested that since we’ve got these neat little creatures, why cut off someone’s head again? Why not have the imps pick up a ghoulie and throw it at somebody, and let the ghoulie do the killing. That was intriguing. So the ghoulies became the ones who did the dirty deeds.”

Buechler made 12 sketches for the little creatures, and Band selected five of them. Band decided he liked the Ghoulies enough not to want to cheapen the project by using other planned gimmicks like ‘scratch and sniff’ cards and 3-D. The creatures were sculpted by Buechler in just one week.

Said Buechler. “I would sculpt each ghoulie at night, based on a ‘sketch Band approved, paint the sculpture, take photographs of it, and bring the pictures to Charlie the next morning. Within a week, I’d sculpted all five ghoulies, and then we started building.”

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Buechler rented a shop and hired Chris Biggs, Everett Burrell, and Rob Cantrell as his core crew, forming Mechanical and Makeup Imageries, Inc., a company that is supplying effects for a number of Charles Band productions. The molds and mechanisms to make the ghoulies work were fabricated in the space of five weeks. During that time, Buechler also created the special effects makeup for and directed the sequence in THE DUNGEON MASTER.

“In reality we had more like three-and-a-half or four weeks for GHOULIES,” said Buechler “I’ve never been involved with something that came together so quickly. I’m really pleased with the outcome though. The special effects look very good considering that the entire movie, including special effects, was shot in roughly six weeks. And not one frame was storyboarded. All the ghoulie shots were sort of pulled out of our hat, done by the seat of our pants.”

Interview with Director Luca Bercovici

Having first started out as an actor for the likes of Charles Band, how did you make the leap to directing?
Luca Bercovici: Directing was the next natural step, being a writer and an actor. Even though I have had a fairly decent career as an actor, I never considered myself a pure actor, as some actors are. I was always writing, and began a secondary career as a writer, in addition to acting. So when Charlie Band agreed to make Ghoulies and asked who was going to direct, naturally I said, ‘Me.’

On the set of Ghoulies (1985) with Mac Ahlberg
On the set of Ghoulies (1985) with Mac Ahlberg

How did Ghoulies first come about? Was it an idea that you brought to Charles Band or did he request a creature feature from you?
Luca Bercovici: My writing partner at the time, Jefery Levy, and I had an idea for a one-location horror movie. I suggested that we take it to Charlie, as I had recently worked as an actor for Charlie on Parasite. I contacted Charlie; pitched him the idea, and he bought it on the spot.

What was it like working with John Carl Buechler and Mechanical Make-up Imageries Inc and was it a strange experience watching their puppets come alive?
Luca Bercovici: I loved working with John. John completely inhabits his creations; he lives through them, and they live through him, if that makes any sense. John can be at turns, scary and a little goofy – I mean that in the most loving way – and so are his creations. I didn’t actually see the creatures until about two weeks before shooting, and when I saw them, their, shall we say, comedic potential was quite obvious. I suddenly started coming up with a lot of gags for the creatures, because they were after all, more creepy and funny than scary. John at first looked at me, horrified, when I came up with these gags. Sacrilege! I could see him think. But, to his credit, he got into the spirit of things and came up with some great stuff.

Ghoulies is often considered a cash-in on the success of Gremlins, as was Critters. Was that movie an influence in any way and how did you feel about these comparisons?
Luca Bercovici: The truth is, we were in production at the same time. We were curious about them, and they were curious about us. They were so curious about us, in fact, that Warner Bros. briefly sued to stop us from using the name – they lost. Part of the reason that Gremlins came out first, is that Charlie Band ran out of money halfway through shooting, so a few months went by as we all scrambled for the money, allowing Gremlins to open first. Strategically, I think Charlie positioned the release that way, as well.

Luca Bercovici

Jefery Levy

Luca Bercovici
Jefery Levy

Peter Liapis as Jonathan Graves
Jamie Bronow as Jonathan Graves as a child
Lisa Pelikan as Rebecca
Scott Thompson as Mike
Ralph Seymour as Mark “Toad Boy”
Mariska Hargitay as Donna
Keith Joe Dick as Dick
David Dayan as Eddie
Victoria Catlin as Anastasia
Charene Cathleen as Robin
Tamara De Treaux as Greedigut
Peter Risch as Grizzel
Michael Des Barres as Malcolm Graves
Jack Nance as Wolfgang

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2 thoughts on “Ghoulies (1984) Retrospective

  1. Heard tales that this one was made in the old exploitation style. In other words, they made up an image (The Ghoulie popping out of the toilet), slapped it on a poster and other promotional material, shopped it around, and it enough folks said “Hey, we would like to buy that,” they then went and made it.

    Liked by 1 person

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