When we were discussing our current Movie of the Month, Tobe Hooper’s grimy slasher The Funhouse, I asked Alli if she thought the film’s carnival funhouse setting could’ve maybe opened it up to some supernatural play with the laws of reality. In my mind, I guess I was conjuring the climax of the Adam Wingard film The Guest, where the titular killer seemingly becomes a supernatural force in the smoke & mirrors setting of a hand built funhouse in a high school gym. Alli bucked against the virtue of that idea, positing that The Funhouse was more terrifying as is, because “The real world grounds the movie in a way that makes it believable.” She explained, “I’m not trying to rule out the idea of demon-possessed funhouse completely, but anytime the supernatural is involved a movie really starts pushing it towards cheesy.” I can’t disagree. Even part of what makes the conclusion of The Guest so memorably enjoyable is its somewhat cheesy nod to the film’s sly, genre-based sense of humor. Tobe Hooper’s film is much more fully committed to its straightforward slasher grittiness, one that likely needs to stick to its real world limitations to remain convincing. What I couldn’t shake from my mind when Alli mentioned the potential cheese factor there, however, was that I had already seen a demon-possessed funhouse horror film and it indeed was a thoroughly cheesy affair.
Charles Band’s production company Full Moon Features isn’t exactly known for a high mark in quality. Full Moon is at best a well-oiled schlock machine, one that churns out such distinguished titles as Dollman Vs. Demonic Toys & Puppet Master 12: The Littlest Reich at a blinding rate of release. The Ghoulies franchise, in particular, is a shameless Gremlins knockoff best known for featuring a tiny evil demon (a “ghoulie,” if you will) lurking in a toilet, waiting to strike. If you’re an adult, that image isn’t likely to affect you much outside maybe a chuckle, but I’m told experiencing it as a child will inspire bathroom anxieties for at least a week. Ghoulies expanded from its Gremlins-riffing origins only slightly, mixing it up by shipping its cute little devils to exotic locations. The series might have reached peak ridiculousness with its third installment, Ghoulies Go to College, but for my money the most enjoyable film in the franchise is the carnival-set second entry. Directed by Charles Band’s father Albert Band, Ghoulies II is in many ways the exact film Alli was describing in her response to my question. Cheesy to the point of ostensibly being a gory children’s film, Ghoulies II trades in the seedy real world horrors of The Funhouse for cheap supernatural genre thrills in which rambunctious, doll-size demons overrun a carnival’s funhouse attraction and dispense with dumb teens in increasingly goofy ways. They’re both slasher films set in carnival funhouses, but the supernatural element of Ghoulies II significantly cheapens & trivializes its setting (to the point of cartoonish hilarity) while the real life grime of The Funhouse affords it a genuine, near-believable terror.
Ghoulies II actually follows a fairly similar narrative approach to the concept of a carnival funhouse horror, except with a shifted perspective. While The Funhouse follows a group of unsuspecting teens as they discover the nastily violent personalities of the travelling carnies, Ghoulies II makes the carnies the sympathetic viewpoint as they struggle to put on a show for today’s jaded, uncaring youth and avoid getting shutdown by the greedy Reagan-era businessmen who haunt nearly every late-80s picture. In this way, the titular ghoulies who invade the film’s funhouse, quaintly titled Satan’s Den, to murder snot nosed teens & terrorize evil accountants are at once hero & villain. Sure, they get out of hand & threaten the lives of the innocent, but because they’re mistaken for animatronic funhouse attractions they also save the day by driving Satan’s Den ticket sales through the roof. When a ghoulie pukes hideous green goo onto two disrespectful teens making out in the funhouse, you’re supposed to cheer for their victory over the punk brats. Even the alcoholism of The Funhouse is softened in this film. Instead of making the carnies mean & scary, liquor makes the owner of Satan’s Den pathetically vulnerable. He & his nephew are far from the barker & the monstrous Gunther from The Funhouse. They’re kinder, more relatable, and a hell of a lot less real.
It’s fair to say applying a little supernatural Ghoulies cheese to the grimy slasher vibe of The Funhouse might’ve been a tonal disaster. I do believe Ghoulies II is an interesting counterpoint to Hooper’s film, however, especially in the way it plays a lot of the same carnival-specific horror elements for cheap humor instead of nightmarish dread. It’s a film I’ve watched way more times than I probably should have, one that’s remarkably accomplished for what it sets out to do. Like with most Full Moon features, Ghoulies II occupies a strange space between kids’ comedy & gory creature feature, but it stands above a lot of other films in the production company’s staggeringly extensive catalog. The stop motion effects, dumb teens bemoaning the loss of their “tunes” (boombox), little person character actor Phil Fondacaro doing his best Vincent Price, and carnival specific kills, including a nasty round of bumper cars, all combine to make for a memorably silly B-Picture. There’s even a go-for-broke kaiju finish & a loving homage to the The Pit & The Pendulum murders of the Corman-Poe Cycle. In the end, Alli is probably right that The Funhouse benefited from sticking to a real world scenario with no supernatural trickery in the details of its funhouse setting, but I’m glad Ghoulies II exists to explore the exact opposite extreme of the same teens-slain-at-a-carnival scenario. They’re two sides of a highly specific, easily cherished coin.