Gremlins (1984) was insanely popular upon release; it was the third highest grossing film in the US after Ghostbusters (1984) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). It became a pop culture sensation and is still beloved today. It was destined to become a hit being produced by Steven Spielberg, written by Chris Columbus, and directed by Joe Dante, and of course it had cultural impact. One of those impact was the rise of the “a bunch small creatures terrorizing people” trope. Before Gremlins, there weren’t too many films that had done that before. There was the TV movie Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973), but outside of insects, films had been devoid of rascally mini monsters.
Films that used that trope post-Gremlins were called knockoffs and often dismissed, however, I wholeheartedly disagree with the “knockoff” title. Gremlins introduced a concept that worked, so of course other films used that concept.
Anyways, Ghoulies is one of the more famous “Gremlins knockoff,” which does make sense if you go by the infamous poster. A green creature of some unknown origins is popping out of the toilet. Pure mogwai mayhem right there, and that poster idea came after filming had wrapped so the scene was shot later.
The film itself bears no resemblance to Gremlins and doesn’t really feature the titular Ghoulies that much. It’s about Jonathan Graves, a guy who inherits a mansion, not knowing that the passed owner of said mansion, his father, was the leader of a demonic cult. Jonathan had been saved as a child by Jack Nance from Twin Peaks (1989) when his father was about to sacrifice him. Soon after moving in, Jonathan starts obsessing over the occult readings he finds laying round and becomes possessed by some evil spirits and starts emulating his father’s dark magic practices.
One of the things he conjures are familiars, creatures who are bound to a person, those include the ghoulies that seem to be deformed versions of real animals (rat, cat, frog(?)) and two demonic dwarfs that tell him the right way to do occult things.
The film is mostly a haunted mansion film, like so many Charles Band produced in the 1980s. It looks quite good, and the creature effects are great. They aren’t on the same level as the effects in Gremlins but Charles Band isn’t on the same level as Steven Spielberg. It’s slow at parts, but the story keeps you interested. The music (some done by Shirley Walker who was the lead composed for Batman: The Animated Series (1993)) is more fun than you would expect from a film like this, but films produced by Band often have that carnival-esque tracks written by his brother, Richard Band.
There are much better haunted mansion films, many also produced by Charles Band, but Ghoulies has a charm of its own. It’s a fun B-movie through and through with plenty of satanism and devilish creatures. For Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (1999) fans, watch out for the film debut of Jane Mansfield’s daughter, Mariska Hargitay, aka Detective Olivia Benson.