Spookies

At one point in the course of Spookies, a character states: "It's as simple as a game of chess." Chess, though, is not simple. The rules for moving the pieces are easy enough to learn, but a player who doesn't understand how to use those movements to create a meaningful strategy will be defeated very quickly. And that makes amateur chess a pretty good metaphor for the way Spookies came into the world. In fact, the production seems to have degenerated almost immediately from chess to Calvinball... except that unlike a good game of Calvinball, nobody involved seems to have enjoyed themselves playing. And everybody lost.

I first saw Spookies not long after it first came out on video, and at the time I counted it among the worst non-European movies I'd ever seen. Recently. when I heard it had come out on British DVD, I became very anxious to see it again. I wondered, now that I had so much more experience with lousy horror cinema, if it would seem as bad to me now as it had seemed all those years ago. I also hoped the DVD would come with some sort of director's commentary — they certainly had enough directors to choose from — that might explain how and why it had come to be such an incoherent mess.

The Vipco DVD turned out to be an unremarkable budget edition. Its release, however, is the best thing to happen to the movie since its original theatrical showing. The fuzzy old VHS copies obscured Spookies's only significant strength: its visual effects. Now, for the first time, we can actually see its imaginatively-designed creatures and hard-won practical effects... effects that no sane low-budget production would ever have dreamed of attempting. It's true, most of the costumes and effects look much better in their screen-grabs than in motion, and in many cases it's easy to see how the work was done... but there's still an above-average level of technical skill on display here.

(The DVD age has given another advantage to Spookies: since digital technology has lowered the cost of film-making to the point where some would-be horror auteurs are working for figurative pocket change, the quality of your average direct-to-video horror cheapie is now at such a low that films like Spookies start to look like fine craftsmanship by comparison. In the meantime, Hollywood has completely taken over the the exploitation film industry, to the point where theaters are filled with $100M movies built on dime-store ideas. Spookies, for all its considerable problems, still has a great deal more charm and imagination than most of the mainstream studio horrors of 2005: Amityville Horror, House of Wanks, Alone in the Dark, The Fog... to name only a few.)

In the absence of a DVD commentary, or (dare I have hoped?) a "Making-Of" documentary, I went looking for the movie's history on the Internet. And now I wish I hadn't. It turns out that practically everybody involved with the production has his or her own take on the matter, each of which contradicts all the others. For heaven's sake, I went looking for the back-story to clarify the situation, not make it worse! What's more, they're all still bitter about their experiences. If I were in charge of producing special features for the U.S. DVD, I'd assemble all three credited directors and as many members of the various crews as I could locate. I'd put them in a room with a camera and a microphone, and then I'd lock the door. After an hour and a half, they would all be dead; and the resulting footage would would be a good deal bloodier and more horrific than Spookies... and it would make more narrative sense.

From what I've been able to piece together — without taking anybody's side in the ongoing arguments — it seems a quick history of the movie goes like this:

Some low-budget American film-makers were approached in the mid-1980's by a British investor, who wanted to make a cheap horror movie. His idea seemed to be to produce a film that could make a quick profit without running afoul of the Video Nasty pogrom, which was then making life unbearable for horror fans in England. The crew obtained the use of a large, atmospheric old house for their shoot, retained the services of a cast from local theatre, hired some talented effects folks and started filming. For some reason of other, the resulting footage didn't quite add up to a workable feature. At some ambiguous point in the reasonably-near future, at least one other director was called in to make something releasable from the material in-the-can. Whatever may have happened over an uncertain period of time in the interim, eventually somebody decided to hire a new cast (since the original actors were otherwise committed, for reasons you'll really have to ask them about...), go back to the original location, and shoot a whole new movie to connect the bits and pieces of the original that somebody involved in the production at some point had decided were usable.

There; is that vague enough?

The funny thing is this: the end result manages to unite the old and new footage carefully enough that, even though it's obvious what's being done, we can't help but notice it's being done rather well. This is no Jerry Warren cut-and-paste job. This is more like the Terry Morse version of Godzilla: however uneven the result, the people in charge of the final product were at least acquainted with the idea of continuity. With that said, though, the "new" part of the movie is so wildly inconsistent with itself that it completely defeats the purpose of matching continuity with the old.

I think the original was conceived as a straight-out horror film. In the last stages of the film's production, they may have, probably but not definitely, don't quote me on it decided to make the film more of a parody. This is evident from the opening credits, not only from the new title (the tame, slightly condescending Spookies in place of the original Twisted Souls), but from the image we're given of an animated skull that changes its expression from a sinister scowl to a cheery grin. Other attempts at comic relief include farting noises overdubbed onto a zombie attack scene, and a character who, for no good reason, likes to talk through a hand puppet.

The comic relief.
Yet another character for whom
death is simply too good.

The first image we see is a stone slab over a grave. However, the surface of the slab is writhing the way no stone ever could... almost as if it was, say, a texturized piece of lycra. I think we're supposed to understand that a significant portion of the movie's action — that is, one of its many subplots — takes place in a crypt underneath this slab, though the action shifts location so many times without explanation that it's diificult to keep track. Behind the graveyard where the crypt lies pulsing is an enormous old house, where most of the story plays out. I think.

We don't get to spend any time in the crypt or the house just yet. First, we see a little boy named Billy, who is hiding in the woods. Behind him, in a different movie, stalks a curious half-man half-cat creature wearing gypsy garb.

And before we have a chance to figure out what's going on with little Billy, we cut away briefly to two cars driving through those same woods. In these cars we're introduced to the least pleasant group of people outside a Lamberto Bava movie. In the rear car, fuming over the crude behavior of the Lead Cretin in the front car, we have a guy in his late thirties wearing a sport coat and tie, his... ummm... girlfriend? wife? significant other? oh, who knows; a younger guy, and his stuffy English girlfriend. In the front car, we have Duke, the previously-mentioned loudmouth, who wears a leather jacket not quite long enough to cover his hairy midsection; the loudmouth's buxom girlfriend; and the guy with the hand puppet. Seven people, in other words, totally unlike any plausible group of seven people you will encounter anywhere in the world.

Now that we've been introduced to our ghost fodder for the evening, we go back to little Billy in the woods. He's run away from home because his parents forgot about his 13th birthday. Just as he's about to bite into his birthday Hostess Snoball, he realizes he's not alone. No, he doesn't run into the curious cat-person... yet... instead, he finds himself talking to an oily fellow who just happens to be hanging around the woods at night, chatting up thirteen-year-old boys. Bleagh. But before things can get too unpleasant, Billy excuses himself and runs off. No sooner has he disappeared when something in another movie drags the other guy out-of-frame; when it spits him back out into the regular movie, he's clawed up and decidedly dead.

Meanwhile, back in in the crypt, a bad actor with a bad fake-Hungarian accent and slightly-better old-age makeup sits brooding by the coffin of his wife. For seventy years, he apostrophizes, he's collected souls to restore her to life; and now the last group of fools is about to arrive. The old man talks about "fools" fairly often, and about stealing their souls. Whether he's referring to the seven idiots in the cars or to the people in the audience who paid good money to see Spookies is open to discussion.

Billy is the first one to stumble on the old house. Inside, he finds a table set for a birthday party, and a card made out to him. Of course, since he's a complete nincompoop, Billy sees nothing odd or suspicious in all this. Nor is he creeped out by the old doll propped up in a chair, or by the wind-up robot that comes walking across the floor. I guess it's a good thing he doesn't notice the green-faced little boy with the fangs, the monk's robes, and the knife, who's sneaking around in the shadows. But when Billy goes to open his present and finds the old man's talking head inside, for some reason he finds that scary. Billy ends up being slashed to ribbons by the Cat Guy — did I mention that the Cat Guy has a hook for a hand? Yes, he does. Just like a real cat. Anyway; Cat Guy slices up the kid and then buries him alive.

The obnoxious septet finally finds the old house. Since they're looking for a party, they decide that an old abandoned house is the next best thing and go inside. Cat Guy watches them, even though we're reasonably sure he's simultaneously out chasing Billy. Oh well; why shouldn't he be in two places at once? He's in two movies at once; after that, everything else should be easy.

Inside the house, the seven stranded castaways discover something horrible and shrivelled in a closet. The vaguely-humanoid corpse is clutching a wooden tablet which one of the girls recognizes as a sort of Ouija board. I'm not sure how she makes the connection, since it doesn't look like anything William Fuld would recognize, or anything Parker Brothers might hold the copyright to... (ahh; wait a minute. I get it now!) It looks much more like a game board, which is appropriate for the way it will be used later in the film. For now, though, our protagonists decide to do what idiots in horror movies always do when they find a Ouija board in a creepy old house: they decide to ask it lots of sinister, loaded questions like "When am I going to die?" Somewhere, in another room of the house, the old man from the crypt dictates to the board the predictable answers to their questions...

All at once, the girl leading the sťance turns into one of the possessed creatures from The Evil Dead. Not only does she look and speak like a Deadite, later in the film she even shouts, "Join us!" even though joining anyone or anything has never really been an option.

The method of her conversion is actually rather clever: the Old Guy picks up a white pawn from his chessboard and clutches it in his fist. When he opens his hand, the pawn has turned black; and immediately thereafter, the girl in the other room turns zombie. It's a good image, and one that would be a little more effective if it had been realized without so many obvious cuts. Unfortunately, there are problems with the metaphorical game references, because they become too complicated: first the Old Guy uses a chessboard to simulate the game he's playing with his intended victims. Then, once the girl turns into a monster who speaks with the Old Guy's voice, the zombie girl starts playing a different game with the Ouija board. When she moves the planchette to a particular image on the board, the monster illustrated there comes to life and attacks one of the terrorized victims. So we have an Old Guy playing chess who controls a zombie girl playing Ouija; how's that for clarity? Making matters worse is the variety of monster attacks we get as the "players" move from room to room. Those of us of a certain age and level of nerdiness may find ourselves reaching instinctively for the graph paper and twenty-sided dice...

As you may have gathered, after the sťance the rest of the movie is largely concered with our six remaining idiots, as they wander in small groups through the house and get killed in various colorful ways. They can't get out, because the exits are blocked by a hoard of rotting zombies that popped out of the ground for the occasion (in case the prospective victims didn't get the hint, a tombstone pops up out of the ground in front of one fleeing idiot: as he watches in terror, his own name engraves itself on the stone). If this all sounds like pretty standard stuff, no more and no less than the sort of cheap thrills provided by any number of bad Eighties horror flicks, I can assure you this is not the case. In fact, the movie offers so much more and so much less than any other movie of its time that it really belongs in a wretched little category all its own.

Unlike other similar movies of the era — Night of the Demons, for instance, or The Unnameable, or even the Waxwork duo, where the various monsters were all derivative — Spookies offers a bewildering number of different, highly original creatures to trim down the cast list. In addition to the zombies and Evil Dead wannabes, not to mention the Old Guy and the Cat Guy — oh: and the green child, too — there are gas-passing Muck Men, lapdog-sized reptile creatures, a Spider Woman, a shapeshifting Thing with deadly electric tentacles, and an animated statue of the Grim Reaper that's apparently made out of nitroglycerine. Not only do the monster designs show a great deal of imagination, they're mostly well-realized.

But in spite of all this apparent talent at work, the movie as a whole is completely lacking in sense. Not only is it devoid of common sense — what low-budget movie makers in their righ minds would attempt to make such an ambitious movie for so little money? — but once you look past the evident technical expertise, the rest is total nonsense. Wouldn't it have been easier for the Old Guy just to kill the idiots? If it takes seven souls to re-animate one dead girl, how much more did it take to fill an old house with bizarre creatures? Isn't it overkill? Especially when you consider that the Old Guy manages to revive his dead wife very early in the proceedings, before his victims have been killed. If the woman is already revived, then what's the point of going on with the elaborate monster maze?

Oh, but there's more: once she comes back to life, the dead girl reveals that she'd killed herself seventy years ago... because she didn't want to spend eternity with the Old Guy. She's none too happy about being revived, and takes the first chance she gets to run away. Then it's her turn to encounter various spookies, including a puppet witch who's a few rungs down the ladder in terms of successful execution.

So now that's two subplots involving people being stalked by murderous creatures. It doesn't matter how creative the film makers are; there's only so much of this sort of thing you can put in a movie before it turns into padding. Highly imaginative padding, maybe... but it's still padding. And eventually, all the kitchen-sink monster fantasies start to seem like overcompensation for a lack of direction in the movie as a whole.

But there are even more digressions in store. You'll remember that the Old Guy is playing two different games: he's got his chessboard, and his proxy is playing with the Ouija. Before long, the Old Guy drops both ideas, as well as the pursuit of his wife, and starts yet another subplot: teaching his little zombie son (that is, the child with the green skin and the monk's robes seen earlier) how to kill people. The zombie son doesn't actually get to follow through on his Dad's instructions, but the lessons do manage to grind the movie to a halt and eat up still more running-time.

Even when you think the movie can't possibly be stretched any thinner, just as things finally seem to be drawing to a close, the movie finds another excuse to pad itself out. The re-animated dead girl finds herself running away from the old house, followed by a horde of crusty zombies (not the same zombies from the beginning of the film — the ones that had trapped the idiots in the house — but a different set of zombies... though this time, I think Billy is among them). The girl apparently attempts to escape from the crypt by jumping out the second or third story window of the house... which means she must have run back into the house, up the stairs a couple of floors, out a window onto the porch roof, then down a trellis (in heels) and then back through the graveyard. This is ridiculous, but not as ridiculous as the final Big Chase, Benny Hill style, which eats up almost ten futile minutes.



I do think that Spookies is worth watching, haphazard and confusing though it is. It's a classic example of an enjoyably bad movie: it's so scatterbrained that nothing's on-screen long enough to wear out its welcome; and it shows lots of vivid (if short-lived) flashes of imagination. Its violence and gore are cartoony enough to be inoffensive, and surprisingly enough there is no nudity. The least pleasant part of the film, assuming you can tolerate the lack of a coherent plot, is the behavior of the normal humans — who are obnoxious even by Eighties horror-movie victim standards.



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