As Charles Band moved into the ‘80s, he sought to estab­lish him­self as an indie gen­re-flick pro­duc­er with his out­fit Empire Films. His key ear­ly suc­cess with Empire was Ghoulies, an odd­ball lit­tle hor­ror flick aimed at younger teens that became a sur­prise hit. It went on to spawn a line of sequels that con­tin­ued into the mid-‘90s, help­ing estab­lish the Empire brand as Band began to crank out flicks right and left.

Ghoulies-posHowever, despite the “Gremlins knock-off” title and adver­tis­ing, it’s not the mini-mon­ster flick it might seem to be. Instead, Ghoulies is a riff on black mag­ic and pos­ses­sion tales that just hap­pens to fea­ture some pint-sized mon­sters (in fair­ness to its cre­ators, it was devel­oped inde­pen­dent­ly of Gremlins and actu­al­ly shot around the same time as that film).

The pro­tag­o­nist is Jonathan (Peter Liapis), a young man who inher­its a creepy manse from a fam­i­ly mem­ber he nev­er knew. This is a sur­prise for him, as he grew up an orphan. The house quick­ly begins to take hold of Jonathan’s will, inspir­ing him to tak­ing up black mag­ic despite the dis­ap­proval of his girl­friend Rebecca (Lisa Pelikan). Jonathan’s dab­blings in dark mag­ic unleash the title beast­ies — and a ghost of a sor­cer­er (Michael Des Barres) with sin­is­ter motives who rep­re­sents a key to Jonathan’s unknown past.

GhoulGhoulies-01ies shapes up as a mod­est but hard-work­ing hor­ror pro­gram­mer, offer­ing a bevy of cheap thrills that step up to but nev­er cross over the PG-13 line. The script, penned by direc­tor Luca Bercovici with Jefery Levy, suf­fers some lulls in its mid­sec­tion but is smart enough to throw in spe­cial effects moments through­out the run­ning time to keep the audi­ence going. Liapis and Pelikan make solid leads, Des Barres is charm­ing­ly ham­my as the spec­tral vil­lain and David Lynch fans will be amused to see Jack Nance turn up as a creepy care­tak­er-with-a-secret. It’s also worth not­ing there is an ear­ly turn by Mariska Hargitay as one of the lead couple’s friends.

Ghoulies-02Bercovici’s straight­for­ward direc­tion ben­e­fits from a big assist by a group of qual­i­ty tech­ni­cians, which is a hall­mark of Empire flicks from this era. Sleek pho­tog­ra­phy by Empire reg­u­lar Mac Ahlberg gives the film a pro­fes­sion­al, atmos­pher­ic look and a jaun­ty orches­tral score by Richard Band and Shirley Walker cements the film’s campy tone in a way that pre­dicts the style Danny Elfman would have great suc­cess with. The key ele­ment of Ghoulies for ‘80s hor­ror fans is the final half-hour, which dish­es up plen­ty of attacks by the tit­u­lar crea­tures and a war­lock bat­tle. John Buechler’s crea­ture designs are goofy, often resem­bling slight­ly sin­is­ter mup­pets, but they fit the film’s teen-friend­ly tone.

In short, Ghoulies is an inter­est­ing exam­ple of an Empire pro­gram­mer, packed with bud­get-con­scious cheap thrills aimed at ‘80s-era mon­ster kids. Its appeal might elude mod­ern hor­ror fans but those who can appre­ci­ate the odd­ball, try-what­ev­er ethos of Empire Films will find it divert­ing in a low-key sort of way.