Ah, Ghoulies – the other, other Gremlins knock-off. This label is something of unfair misnomer, as the first Ghoulies film was in production at the same time as Joe Dante’s classic film. This little franchise that could sit on a porcelain throne of cult appreciation alongside other Tiny Terror pictures like Critters and Troll.
The third outing for these diminutive devils sees them wreaking havoc in the realm of higher learning – summoned from a comic book (yes) by occult obsessed college professor Ragnar (genre alum Kevin McCarthy) during the university prank week. At first the Ghoulies hijinks are blamed on the warring factions of douchey frat bros vying for victory in the war – but it is soon evident something far more deadly is at play…
Genre fans of a certain age will remember this scenario well. Browsing the horror section at the local video store and seeing the VHS cover of Ghoulies beckoning us. The image of a slimy green, bald-headed demon baby creature (inexplicably clad in a shirt and suspenders) emerging from a toilet is one of those magical images that imprints on horror diehards for life.
If I had to guess, I’d say the cover art for the film is one of the most famous horror VHS images of all time.
By the time Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go to College rolls around, the filmmakers are milking that damn toilet gimmick for all it’s worth. There is an inordinate amount of toilet in this film. I could make snarky and sneering bathroom related jokes about the quality of entertainment we’re dealing with here, but I won’t. Why, you ask? Well, because Ghoulies III is a very fun evil puppet movie. And if there is one thing I soft spot for (there is way more than one thing) it is evil puppet movies.
The late, great special effects wizard and filmmaker John Carl Buechler steps into the director’s chair after having done the effects work for the first two films in the franchise. Possibly due to budgetary reasons, the variety of Ghoulies is cut down to three beasties. The Fish Ghoulie, the Rat Ghoulie, and Cat Ghoulie are the only ones present. Oh, and they talk now…almost exclusively in one-liners.
While the previous two films took their subject matter relatively seriously as monster/occult horror films, Ghoulies Go to College is an attempt at outright comedy.
The Three Stooges are an obvious frame of reference with the interactions between the Ghoulies themselves – lots of slapstick, lots of insulting banter, and lots of bottom of the barrel humor. Of course the Ghoulies are horny. Of course the Ghoulies fart. Of course the Ghoulies get drunk. They are in college after all – what do you think they should do, study?
Once the inciting incident happens, the narrative plays out as a series of puppet sight gags, which is the only reason why anyone would watch a movie called Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go to College in the first place.
Buechler knows what we want to see and he doesn’t play coy by making us wait too long or by attempting to get us invested in the characters or anything as ambitious as that. This movie is an excuse for Buechler and his crew to have fun playing with their toys, and when the film is solely focused on Ghoulie gaiety, it’s an easy-going creature feature delight.
The comedy in Ghoulies III isn’t all that funny. In fact, it’s downright ignominious. The film was released direct-to-video in 1991 and the whole “wacky college mayhem!” genre was all but worn down to the nub by that point in time. The slapstick and riffs in this film are often tired and protracted yet somehow, evoking the ouroboros, Ghoulies III is so unfunny it ends ups eating its own tail and becoming funny anyway despite itself. It’s trying, okay guys?
As stated before, the characters are nothing to write home about or invest in aside from the class act Kevin McCarthy doing his best with the material. Horror has a long history of established character actors coming in to pepper up the material, and Ghoulies III wouldn’t be as entertaining without McCarthy giving it his all.
Keep an eye out for Matthew Lillard’s first on screen role and a small part for the late Jason Scott Lee, too. Oh, and Kane Hodder shows up for a very lame bit of slapstick during the opening credits. Peep that haircut!
I’ve just written well over 800 words about Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go to College and I don’t feel even a modicum of shame about it. This isn’t the type of movie than engenders any kind interest from anybody not into silly evil puppet movies. But if you ARE into silly evil puppet movies, Ghoulies Go to College is sure to sway you with its base charms and simplistic enthusiasm.