Ghouls (2008): Well, Which Is It?

Matty examines the good and the bad in Gary Jones’ conflicted SyFy spookshow.

Between 2004 and 2008, action specialists Nu Image and Ken Badish’s Active Entertainment joined forces to make a string of creature features and monster movies for SyFy (then The Sci-Fi Channel) in three different waves. The first wave resulted in the mostly excellent Alien Lockdown (2004), Larva (2005), MosquitoMan (2005), Shark Man (2005), and Snake Man (2005) (it’s the latter that’s the stinker). The second yielded an enjoyable quartet in the form of The Black Hole (2006), Kraken: Tentacles of the Deep (2006), Attack of the Gryphon (2007), and Showdown at Area 51 (2007). And the third wave gave us Ghouls (2008) and Flu Birds (2008) — a distinctly middling pair produced with former Full Moon associates Castel Film over in Romania. Of these last two, it’s GHOULS that warrants the closest look, purely because there’s more to say about it than the shrug of the shoulders that Flu Birds elicits. It is, however, a massively flawed offering that fails to reach the heights it could have done. 

Opening with a stylish and creepy scene of black magic, Ghouls lures you in with a potential that’s scuppered by a lack of focus and choppy, gimmicky editing. Having proved to Nu Image that he was a capable set of hands with his career-best double whammy of Spiders (2000) and Crocodile 2: Death Roll (2002) — and having toiled with Castel on his agreeable ‘grunts vs. space dinosaurs’ epic Planet Raptor (2007) — FX man-turned-director Gary Jones comes a cropper with this awkwardly poised tale, which can never decide whether it wants to be a classy Hammer-spiked neo-gothic or something rowdier. What frustrates is that when judged separately, the elements Jones throws at us work: there is a poetic elegance to the bulk of his really quite striking imagery, and the splashes of gore — where guts are spilt, arms are severed, faces peeled, and hearts ripped out — are deliciously garish. The film benefits from a wonderful, labyrinthine village location that affords it an otherworldly charisma that’s augmented by the majority of Ghouls’ horrors occurring with ballsy élan in the daylight a la The Shining (1980) (a demand of SyFy no doubt — they notoriously detest night scenes due to market research suggesting that their viewers will switch stations if a movie is aesthetically dark). And another plus are the eponymous supernatural fiends; vicious, hooded spectres — part Dementor, part Romero flesh-eater — that are brought to life via a mixture of Dean Jones’ tasty practical fabrications and the slightly less successful yet still pretty cool CGI of Nu Image’s in-house VFX wiz Scott Coulter. 

The film’s stumbling block, though, is a stagnant script. The actual plot is great in a comforting, tried n’ tested kind-of way: following the death of her estranged grandmother, an American college student (Kristen Renton) accompanies her Romanian-born father (William Atherton) back to his homeland and falls afoul of an evil cult tied to a grim family secret. Alas, such a simple and oft-used blueprint is only ever as gripping as the characters that lace its landscape. With that in mind, Ghouls’ dramatic punch and general level of engagement are nullified by the bored-seeming Atherton’s utterly depressing performance, and what scant personality the remainder of its ensemble possess rests upon the fact that one guy is so overbearingly nice that he simply has to be involved with the baddies, and that James DeBello’s Connecticut twang isn’t necessarily how you’d imagine a druid emissary to sound.

Ghouls premiered on SyFy on Saturday 12th June 2008 and hit US DVD a few months later, at the fag end of September, through First Look. At the time, Nu Image had recently acquired a 52% controlling stake in First Look and had begun using it to distribute their output domestically.

USA/Romania ● 2008 ● Horror ● 90mins

William Atherton, Kristen Renton, Erin Gray ● Dir. Gary Jones Wri. Raul Inglis, Jason Bourque, Brian D. Young, story by Kenneth M. Badish [Ken Badish] & Alex Terapane

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