Reviewed by Patrick Cooper
Put the kids to bed, pal, because this ain’t your regular made for TV coming of age movie! Ghoul, produced by the Chiller network, is the rare kinda film that’s about a group of kids and actually treats them with respect. They’re fully formed characters dealing with real-world problems that’ll quickly age any kid. And as if their miserable home lives weren’t reason enough to go grey at age 12, there’s something in their little rural neighborhood that’s killing people.
The movie is set in 1984 for no apparent reason. There’s no nostalgic feel or specific plot point that depends on it being 1984. The year is thrown out the window when the film begins anyway because Timmy (Nolan Gould) is watching a flash animation on television. It’s about two dogs with superpowers fighting a monster. It goes on for a couple minutes, so I thought it was foreshadowing something important. Anyways, forget about the year.
Timmy’s got a pretty normal family, but his two friends certainly don’t. Doug’s (Jacob Bila) mom is an alcoholic who’s always in a robe and who breaks into his room at night to molest him. Barry (Trevor Harker) has to work in the cemetery all summer because his abusive dad is drunk all the time. These kids are stressed out but they do manage to find some time to have fun. They build an underground clubhouse complete with secret entrance and nudie mags. There’s even a rival gang of older kids who lurk around trying to find the boys’ secret clubhouse.
After some teenagers are found dead and some more go missing, Timmy and the gang start investigating the local legend of the Ghoul. Legend has it he first appeared decades ago where there was a disaster at the coalmine. As one of the miners was drifting out of consciousness, he swears he saw some humanoid creature with long fingers creeping around. Since then, anytime bad things go down in town, whispers of the Ghoul start surfacing again. The parents assure the kids it’s nothing more than a boogieman legend designed to keep unruly children in line, but, like the parents in Nightmare on Elm Street, you can tell they know more than they’re letting on.
The story of the Ghoul, once its tale is revealed, is pretty damn harrowing and a genuinely believable urban legend monster origin story. In the film, based on the novel by Brian Keene, the boys have to pay for the sins of their fathers. Timmy, Doug, and Barry are tough kids though. One of them has a job at a cemetery, for chrissakes. When shit goes sour these kids roll with the punches. Even with abusive dads and rapey moms, the boys still muster the strength to go to war for each other. They’re refreshing kid characters that are treated with respect – not gimmicky goofballs with catch phrases (like in Super 8). All the child actors are great too, especially Barry, the gravedigger filled with rage and fear of his doughy, wife-beating father.
There’s one scene with Timmy and Doug that’s particularly gut-wrenching. Doug confides in Timmy about his mom getting drunk and molesting him every night. There are suggestive flashbacks in the shower that made my skin crawl. It’s a heavy and disturbing scene. I can’t recall a serious scene between two child actors like that recently in film. It’s ballsy stuff.
The film naturally suffers from some of the inescapable hiccups of a TV movie, with low production value being the most obvious. But story-wise Ghoul is solid. Even when it gets predictable near the climax, I was still engaged because I cared about these kids. The film doesn’t shy away from raping, beating, and even killing children, so it always feels like the stakes are real. As the three boys faced the monsters in their homes and below the ground, I honestly was rooting for them to come out alive.
Despite the trappings of a TV budget, Ghoul manages to pull off some admirable stuff – especially where the story is involved. It’s a little Stand By Me and a little Monster Squad, while also managing to be its own monster. I guess, in the end, I’m just a sucker for tough kids in peril. I can handle unremarkable suspense and lackluster acting, but if there’s a smartass kid involved you better not fuck that up.
Official score: 4 out of 5