The train to hell continues with our review of Spookies.
|"Somebody kiss me!"|
Sometimes, the real villain of a horror movie lurks behind the camera; a slasher in a corporate office or edit suite who takes a film so full of potential and chops it up and leaves it for dead. Spookies should have been one of the best monster movies of the 1980s. It almost was, and if you watch it in the right frame of mind, it still almost is. Few films have ever had so much potential snatched so cruelly out of reach. The finished movie is still hugely entertaining Halloween-time viewing, but it should have been so much more… and the reason why it isn’t is a very sad story indeed.
Spookies began its life as a very different film called Twisted Souls: a love-letter to Old Dark House atmosphere and practical monster effects, made by a trio of obviously passionate film lovers. Thomas Doran, Frank M. Farrel, and Brendan Faulkner wanted to create the sort of wonderfully insane funhouse of monsters, spirits, and long, dark shadows that horror fans long to discover. Unfortunately, the film’s financial backers had a different vision, and while Twisted Souls was in the midst of post-production, they casually forced Doran, Farrel, and Faulkner off the project, and took creative control. They brought in a new writer and director to do massive re-shoots, and when the original cast and crew refused to participate in this hostile takeover of the film, they made up a completely unrelated subplot with completely new people. Half of Twisted Souls was left on the cutting room floor, and Spookies was born: a confused fever-dream that amounts to bits and pieces of two unrelated films awkwardly shoved together. No one is going to be fooled into thinking that this is one cohesive movie: the Twisted Souls scenes look great, with top-notch special effects, while the Spookies scenes look amateurish, with awful effects. The two sets of characters are obviously never in the same space at the same time, and the two plot threads stay as separate as oil and water. But here’s the thing… the awesomeness of Twisted Souls shines through, and saves the movie even in this compromised form.
The reason why it still works is that Doran, Farrel, and Faulkner did such a good job of creating that insane funhouse. They crafted a chaotic world where literally anything can happen, and our minds stay open to (almost) whatever insanity the film throws at us. Plus, their scenes are so effective and memorable that the Spookies footage is largely forgotten every time we return to the surviving pieces of Twisted Souls. Perhaps it’s a bitterly double-edged compliment to say “their movie is so good that it can survive being butchered by a bunch of hacks,” but there it is. The film follows a group of twentysomethings who happen upon a spooky abandoned mansion at the edge of a graveyard, and unwittingly release a barrage of demons and ghouls from a Ouija board in the house. Plus there’s something about a wizard and a cat-boy and a princess and some other nonsense… but that’s all added by the Spookies footage, so let’s just pretend it isn’t there. It’s the perfect set-up for a slightly tongue-in-cheek monster-fest, almost reminiscent of the classic video games Maniac Mansion, Splatterhouse, and Zombies ate my Neighbors, in which there’s a different weird monster in every room. Each of those “levels” is fantastic, and every one provides an unexpected, seriously imaginative surprise.
|"No way! That's a face only|
a mother could love!
The creatures are, without a doubt, the real stars of the show. Any type of practical creature effects that you could want are present here: stop-motion, animatronic, rubber-suit monsters, demonic-possession make-up… they’re all accounted for. Each monster is extremely different from the last, ranging from Gremlins-style mini-demons to gigantic nightmare beasts; from sci-fi-looking creatures to ones right out of mythology. It seems as though Twisted Souls was designed partly as a visual effects artistry calling-card, given the huge variety of style and technique on display. The effects are, for the most part, uniformly excellent; better than plenty of the more well-known films from this decade, let alone this budget bracket. To say any more about what the monsters actually are would be a spoiler; a huge part of the pleasure of Spookies is seeing what sorts of wild ghouls the film will send your way next. The added Spookies footage unfortunately mixes in some truly abysmal effects, but that only further proves that it just doesn’t belong in this movie.
All this isn’t meant to suggest that the Twisted Souls footage is perfect; these sequences have their flaws too, particularly in the character department. Most of the characters from the Twisted Souls scenes tend to be rather over-the-top and camp in their portrayals, and a couple of them are little more than monster fodder. I suspect that this is because that’s just not where the film’s priorities lie; it’s all about the creatures and the atmosphere, so the characters can afford to be less than well-developed. Of course, with half of Twisted Souls missing it isn’t entirely fair to write the characters off; we may never know what they should have been like. But at least a couple of them are just obnoxious, with no further evidence needed. The newly-inserted Spookies characters, meanwhile, are outright shallow genre clichés, and they have no excuse.
In the end, two things are equally true about Spookies: it is deeply flawed and quite a mess after its tragic butchering, and it is nonetheless hugely entertaining due to the excellent sequences that the Twisted Souls team created. It is for this latter reason that the film has developed such a passionate – if small – cult following over the years. There are still big-screen showings of Spookies every now and then (a couple are coming up in L.A. before Halloween), the film’s rare VHS has become a holy grail for horror collectors, and there have been at least two fan-edit attempts to present what’s left of Twisted Souls with the added scenes removed. This is clearly a movie that has grabbed viewers’ imaginations, and it’s easy to see why. It is also a very difficult film to give a star rating to: the Twisted Souls half deserves a higher score, and the Spookies half inevitably drags it down, yet they are so clearly not the same movie that it feels unfair to lump them together. Yet lumped together they are, so I must give the film a strictly middle-of-the-road (though forgiving of the added footage) rating. But that rating also comes with a recommendation: if you’re a fan of practical-effects-fueled creature features, or this era of horror in general, definitely check out Spookies. It’s one strange journey, but if you’re prepared, it’s a perfect one for Halloween.
-Christopher S. Jordan
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