Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Cinema File 86: "Ghoul" Review

I've never read the book upon which this film is based, nor have I read any by the author Brian Keene. From what I understand, the original novel is much darker and more of a straight forward supernatural horror story. Still, despite the changes and contrary to several poor reviews I've read of the film, as low budget TV horror movies go, I was pleasantly surprised by Ghoul.

The story follows a group of kids who discover that their underground club house is adjacent to the subterranean lair of the titular local urban legend that has begun kidnapping woman and killing children at night. I love movies like this, coming of age stories where young protagonists face off against supernatural evil. I grew up in the 80's and 90's with films like It, The Lost Boys, and Monster Squad, and I appreciated the hell out of this movie's apparent aim to recreate the feel of that largely bygone era of film. The production values are as cheap as you would expect for a TV movie. Prepare yourself for, among other things, some of the worst animated and illustrated props you will ever see, including a Scooby Doo style cartoon that looks like it was made in Russia, and a series of comic books that I could have done in an hour with MS Paint. The budget is obviously small and the acting is often less than top notch, but as always, that didn't deter me from what was otherwise a solid adventure horror film.

When I speak of the acting, I'm mostly referring to the main trio of kids, who unfortunately are not the best child actors you'll ever see. There are no Chloe Grace Moretz-style diamonds in the rough here, and some of their more wooden moments make it hard to engage with their performances from time to time, but overall I wouldn't say any of them are so bad as to ruin the viewing experience. That being said, something I loved about this film that I imagine might be polarizing is just how much emotional weight is placed on these young characters. We find out early on that murderous creatures are the least of their problems, as the movie deals very frankly and honestly with things like physical abuse, neglect, incest, child molestation, and at one point even infanticide (though technically that last one doesn't effect any of our main characters, serving only as a flashback ultimately playing into the final reveal). For me, the more serious undertones elevated Ghoul above what any other movie would have made into a rather light and carefree action fantasy.

There are problems with the execution that stop me from declaring it an unqualified success. There are a lot of simple elements that could have been set up better, the most crucial being the monster's motivation, which you ultimately have to chalk up to it just being batshit crazy. Also, another character is found to be working with the Ghoul, and though a reason is technically given, it seems very slight and a bit unbelievable. Little things like that pop up here and there, like a possible love interest for the main kid who appears, then goes away, or a group of bullies who exist purely to up the body count, their feud with the main kids never really established before they seek revenge for some unseen offense. Also Barry Corbin shows up in a cameo as the main boy's grandfather, and it just seems like he could have been and should have been a much larger part of the proceedings, especially in light of how much of the exposition is delivered so jarringly, when it could have been handled much better through his character.

I'd say my main problem with the film is apparently a change made from the original source material, where a twist is added as to the Ghoul's true identity not present in the novel. What we see of the Ghoul as an actual monster is only through fantasy and dream sequences, and its clear from the outset that what is actually killing people is something completely different and much less threatening. Without spoiling it, I have to say I would have much preferred the simpler twist free ending from the book, as the revelation seems tacked on and really kind of silly. Still, the main theme of the movie regarding humanity's own monstrous side, complete with an explicit quote from Nietzsche, is probably better served by the new ending.

Overall, if you can get past the technical flaws and a few minor storytelling hiccups, Ghoul is a nice little throwback to the 80's horror fantasy movies that inspired me growing up, and a mostly decent way to spend an evening.


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