The criminally underrated obscure schlocky movie that delivers everything you wanted (and even that which you didn’t know you needed) out of a horror B-movie! After the guys at the Cinema Speak Podcast featured a micro-review of Spookies (1986), I knew right then and there that I needed to seek out this movie for both my viewing pleasure and as a horror academic. After seeing a countless number of horror movies, over the years, ranging from junk to masterpieces, I love when a horror movie can surprise me! And that is certainly the case with Spookies. But why?
Does this movie do anything particularly innovative? No.
Does it provide thoughtful commentary on the human condition? No.
Well then, it must deliver underrated performances or a compelling story? Not at all.
What it does provide is an hour and a half of truly mind-blowing creature effects and entertaining kills! Spookies packs a punch in all the right ways, delivering the perfect amount of spookiness one wants to see in a movie that’s ostensibly a surreal combination of Disney’s Haunted Mansion attraction, Evil Dead, Night of the Living Dead, and even The Isle of Dr. Moreau. You don’t watch this movie for the story, although it is loads of fun; you watch it for the sheer spectacle of a no-holds-barred love of the American horror film.
A 13-year-old boy runs from home because his parents forgot his birthday. Making his way through the woods, he encounters a drifter who is subsequently slashed to death. The boy stumbles upon an old mansion where a room is decorated for a birthday celebration that he (for some bizarro reason) thinks is for him. Like the call of a siren, a group of partiers also stumble across what they think is an abandoned mansion in the middle of nowhere. No one has any idea that it is home to a powerful sorcerer. With the help of other-worldly creatures and a werecat-like sidekick, the sorcerer terrifies and threatens the unwelcome house guests with one horror after another, as he needs sacrifices to give eternal life to his beautiful but dead bride.
Spookies was originally shot by two first-time filmmakers, friends and horror fans Thomas Doran and Brendan Faulkner in 1984, with additional scripting, directing, and editing by Eugenie “Genie” Joseph. Originally titled Twisted Souls, the first incarnation of this film was met with conflict and chaos on and off set. So the long and short of it is, the original director was fired from Twisted Souls, and the movie’s financier gave what had been shot over to Doran and Faulkner, both of whom had a vision of an ethereal movie with a monster a minute that takes place at a haunted mansion! And they couldn’t have asked for a more ideal location. The new directors brought their highly skilled crew to the John Jay Estate, located in Rye, New York. This colonial manner was once the home of one of America’s founding fathers, John Jay, who co-authored the Treaty Of Paris and the Federalist Papers, and was the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
As you already know, the horror genre is filled with immense, and often underrated or undervalued talent, imagination, and sheer excellence in craftsmanship that work together to bring our nightmares to life. The proliferation of A and B horror movies in the 1980s resulted in an explosion of creativity on screen that made us laugh and scream. Rarely have I found myself genuinely surprised by a horror movie, but I absolutely loved this one for feeling fresh yet familiar! When I was asked by another podcaster, what about Cinema Speak’s review made me immediately seek it out, I responded with the description of the practical effects as being cheesy and charming as the commentary that inspired me to locate this obscure 1980s gem! Anytime someone highlights the practical effects in (any, but especially in) a horror movie, I am compelled to check it out.
So much of this movie’s plot makes absolutely zero sense, but it somehow pulls off the impossible by making that work! From a random, isolated thirteen-year-old boy running around the woods to celebrate his birthday to a group of college-aged young adults hanging out with an older couple to a cat-like love child, the movie defies all screenwriting logic. And you know what? It’s perfectly fine. Because where this movie excels is in the art of the horror experience! You get it all, unlikable characters that you cheer for when they meet their demise, a stupid kid that gets what he deserves, a tragic and twisted love story, and a haunted mansion in the middle of the woods surrounded by a graveyard. Throw in a heaping helping of high-budget ambition on a low-budget wallet, and you get this phantasmagorical movie that will make horror fans gleefully smile at the high degree of entertainment value with heart.
The movie’s technical achievement is outstanding! And not just the monster/creature effects, the cinematography and score are also quite good! While the performances are nothing to particularly write home about, they deliver what you want to see and experience in a schlocky horror movie. But the real stars of this movie are the monsters and ghouls created by the puppeteers, makeup artists, and other technicians. This movie could be read as a love letter to creature effects and to the work of Jack Pierce, Tom Savini, Rick Baker, Stan Winston, and other behind-the-scenes stars of the screen! Every time a new spooky monster was introduced, I was left simultaneously with my mouth agape and hugely smiling at the originality of each and every creature. Sure you have zombies, but the zombies were all designed with the utmost care. Ken Brilliant (The Lost World: Jurassic Park), John Dods (Monsters TV series), Ken Walker (Frankenhooker) and Jon Mathews (The Deadly Spawn) were on the special effects crew, and they did a great job despite the low budget. Nothing was left to chance or hurriedly constructed–well, except for maybe the grim reaper monster costume that is from Spirit Halloween.
Not only are the monsterous creations in the house, but they are outside as well! Literally everywhere you turn, there is a nightmarish entity just waiting to stalk and attack you. This addition of monsters in the yard offers up a clever dynamic that isn’t seen often in these type of horror movies. Usually the monsters or ghosts are contained within the walls of the house. Cinematically, what this does is convey that there is no escape from the claws, teeth, and tentacles of the monsters. This proliferation of monsters actually plays quite well! Clearly the directors knew how to handle this spectacularly because it could’ve so easily been disastrous. The film’s success is attributed to the directors’ talented crew and ability to execute a grand vision on a limited budget. But why does this film succeed at it’s poorly written plot? It wasn’t intended to tell a thoughtful or even coherent story; the intention was to immerse the audience into a surreal nightmarish world of monsters, magic, and mayhem. A world WITH DIMENSION that is so incredibly impressive and entertaining that we forgive the story for not making any sense, because we can see and love the hands of the artisans in each and every scene.
Spookies is one hot mess of a horror movie, but it could quite possibly be the most phenomenal hot mess horror movie ever! Don’t try to make sense of the plot; you will go crazy trying. In a manner of speaking, the movie has to be experienced rather than understood or passively watched. After reading this review, you may be temped to think of this as just another B-movie that only ardent horror fans whom refuse to acknowledge the accomplishments of contemporary horror cinema enjoy; but if you think that way, you will be doing yourself a grave disservice because this movie is fantastic! And at a quickly paced 85-minutes, you will be surprised how much you enjoy it and will want to watch it again to get a better look at the creature effects. This is definitely one of the most insane low-budget horror movies out there. Prepare to witness the monstrous special effects extravaganza of a group of clueless people running around being killed in glorious fashion. So do yourself a favor and gather a group of your friends together with some drinks and popcorn, and turn the volume way up to experience the horror gem that is Spookies (1986).
Spookies is available on BluRay from Vinegar Syndrome or by more nefarious means. But if you choose the more nefarious route, you will deprive yourself of the behind the scenes documentary and special featurettes ONLY AVAILABLE on the BluRay.
Ryan teaches screenwriting and film studies at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!
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