Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Willies

(PG-13, Force Majeure Productions, 92 mins., video release date: December 27, 1990)

The demand for kid-friendly horror movies by the late 1980s wasn't huge, but the genre was still substantial enough to make for a few choice VHS rentals. Disney had a couple of early ‘80s efforts, including an adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. And although they pushed their PG ratings to extremities which the MPAA soon rectified, the Steven Spielberg productions Poltergeist and Gremlins remain bona fide classics. In 1987 alone, both The Gate and The Monster Squad began their paths to cult discovery. My personal favorite of these movies is Nicholas Roeg's genuinely creepy 1990 film The Witches, adapted from a book by Roald Dahl, produced by Jim Henson and boasting a memorable lead performance by Anjelica Huston as the nefarious yet glamorous Grand High Witch.

It's certainly not to be confused with rather homophonic The Willies, which plopped itself directly to video store shelves after Christmas 1990. Released through Prism Home Video, there were many copies which bore the classic Paramount Pictures logo, and on them was the tagline “If you want to see a cute, nice, sweet little movie...RENT SOMETHING ELSE!” I don't know how many people heeded that advice, as I'm guessing that a large percentage of American families were probably watching Home Alone in theatres for the tenth time. Alas, I personally never discovered the film in my youth, and had to wait until I was 30 years old to get around to it.

Even my inner child doesn't like this one, though.

The Willies is, of course, named after the slang term for goosebumps, but R.L. Stine this is definitely not. The writer and director of this one is Brian Peck, a Fred Armisen doppelganger best known among 80s cultists for minor roles in The Last American Virgin and The Return of the Living Dead. Here his role is to cater to literal minors, taking a sharp turn from the R-rated shenanigans of those two films to instead fashion a PG-13 twist on the horror anthology format seen in Creepshow or Deadtime Stories. You know, movies that an actual 13-year-old stumbles upon instead of following the parameters set up by ratings boards and Blockbuster Video policies.

Chances are if I had watched this at my most impressionable, I'd be sniggering more than shivering, because The Willies is a patently juvenile experience. This is Gordie Lachance's fable of the pie-eating contest from Stand by Me expanded to feature length, told from the perspective of three adolescents camping out in the backyard. The leader of which is named Michael and is played by Sean Astin, who is duly leveled with a token reference to his character from The Goonies. It would've worked better had he taken an occasional respite from his stories to occasionally take a hit from an inhaler, but you can't have everything.

Anyway, Mikey's bickering cousins Kyle (Jason Horst) and Josh (Joshua Jon Miller, not to be confused with the Joshua John Miller who played Homer in Near Dark) swap tall tales which are episodic re-enactments of well-accepted urban legends. A customer at a fried chicken restaurant (in a scene nowhere near as classic as the finger food bit from The Hitcher), an old man riding a Haunted Mansion-style fairground ride and an old lady drying off her wet poodle in the microwave are the unappetizing appetizers before Mikey spins his yarns and the movie spins its wheels.

Whereas most anthology films have a minimum of three disparate stories, Brian Peck is limited to two of them. As a result, The Willies drags them both out an to excruciating degree, not exactly the tried and true method of creating suspense. In the first, set at Greeley Elementary School, meek Danny Hollister (Ian Fried) is put upon by a trio of cocky bullies as well as spinster schoolteacher Miss Titmarsh (Kathleen Freeman), his only ally being kindly custodian Mr. Jenkins (James Karen). Danny's misfortunes simultaneously worsen and improve when he finds a monster in one of the boys' room stalls (not made out of feces, mercifully) and lures all of his tormentors to their doom. Danny doesn't realize what the eagle-eyed viewer notices, though, in that the monster has a human disguise as made clear by the fact that a decapitated head looks unmistakably like a mask.

The second entry is decidedly unpleasant thanks in no small part to its central character, Gordy Belcher (Michael Bower), a noxious, rather sociopathic fat kid whose hobby is collecting flies and using them for dioramas. His bickering, belligerent parents aren't so much enablers as sad specimens of humanity themselves, and Gordy's idea of a good joke is to feed a pretty girl raisin cookies of a rather unsavory recipe. But Farmer Spivey (Ralph Drischell) has invented a “miracle manure” which may prove to be Gordy's undoing once the boy steals the fertilizer for his own purposes.

The Willies is thematically consistent in regards to the fantasy of seeing unruly boys getting their karmic come-uppance, with Gordy and Danny's foes making dutiful, straw-filled antagonists. The problem with The Willies is that it lacks the color or the quirks of any number of EC Comics descendants, fashioned so basically as to be anemic and not helped by a uniform level of cheapness in performances and imagination. Sure, there are a couple of grisly gags, mainly in the dream sequences Gordy encounters which involve maggots and the even more disturbing sight of Kirk Cameron talking back at him during an episode of Growing Pains. But instead of any kind of juicy allegory or over-the-top dark humor, the stories come across as weak and tedious, boring set-ups which lead to lame pay-offs. The average Troma movie is campier and more creative than this.

Peck calls in favors from friends for several cameo appearances, so Kimmy Robertson, Dana Ashbrook and the venerable Clu Gulager make the briefest of appearances (Return of the Living Dead FX artist Kenny Myers is also credited here). And seeing James Karen as the passive-aggressive Mr. Jenkins is good for a smirk. But Kathleen Freeman, who in the same year played a deliriously sauced-up satire of Julia Child in Joe Dante's Gremlins 2: The New Batch, is curiously sedate as the disbelieving teacher and the young stars throughout are directed with little flair. The only real impression is made by Bower, who went on to star as Donkeylips on Nickelodeon's Salute Your Shorts, and that's because the lisping, whiny Gordy renders him completely insufferable and amateurish. And you have to put up with him for a torturously long half-hour, to boot.

This isn't even as scary as a repeat viewing of Joseph Sargent's Nightmares on cable television. The Willies is something I would've found just as forgettable as a preteen as I do now, and it's a shame that Peck, in his only auteur credit, pooled all his resources into something this leaden and lifeless. It makes Return of the Living Dead Part II look like Evil Dead II.

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