Tempe Video // 1990 // 72 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // November 5th, 2004
Where the uneducated meet the undead.
Yeah, okay, so as a kid, I used to get together with my friends and make awful horror movies on a crappy video camera, too. It just never occurred to me to put one out on DVD.
Ghoul School kicks off when a couple of bad guys (we know they're bad guys because they wear flannel shirts) kill an overweight high school janitor while searching for treasure. (I think.) They then accidentally push a button that unleashes a zombie-inducing chemical into the school's water supply (prompting me to ask what's worse -- giving your zombie juice an on/off switch, or keeping it on hand in a public school in the first place? And should they really be filling the school's swimming pool with a garden hose?), turning the swim team into flesh-eating, aerodynamically-shaven monsters. It's up to two horror movie fanatics and the worst metal band in cinematic history to save the day -- or, at least, eat up the next seventy-two minutes of your life.
Lloyd Kaufman and his movie studio, Troma, catch a great deal of flak (much of it right here at DVD Verdict) for churning out low-budget and lower-brow schlock. While that's an accurate assessment of much of Troma's output -- it is, after all, low-budget, lowbrow schlock -- it's also entirely too dismissive. A true hack could not make the kinds of films that Kaufman makes (though it's important to make the distinction between the films Troma produces in-house and the ones they acquire from outside filmmakers, which are not often of the same quality). A filmmaker who's incompetent or stupid does not make The Toxic Avenger or Terror Firmer -- movies which, in their own way, are masterpieces of a certain kind. It takes a special sort of genius to seem that dumb (just ask Howard Stern).
If the above sounds like a lead-in to a review of the latest Troma film, it isn't. I mention Kaufman and his studio only because they're an example of folks who are doing what they do right -- like it or not, Troma is the artistic height of a very particular niche they themselves have helped to carve out in the cinematic landscape: the overtly stupid gore-comedy. Timothy O'Rawe's newly-released (though made in 1990) Ghoul School, which is clearly inspired by the legacy of Mr. Kaufman (but is in no way affiliated with either him or Troma), is an example of a film that takes the formula and gets it all wrong. It's the kind of movie that leaves you speechless -- it's almost pointless to critique it, because not one thing in it works. Where do you even start?
Every element of Ghoul School is unintentionally artificial, right down to the obviously dressed stains on the T-shirt worn by "Abusive Dad." Every shot is reduced to the simplest, most obvious construct, and the hand-held camerawork is every bit as jittery as a Disneyland vacation video. The makeup is laughably amateurish. The story makes no sense. Dialogue doesn't match up to mouth movements. Actors look at the camera. And sure, many of these same faults can be found in something like Plan 9 From Outer Space (unfairly labeled the "worst movie of all time" -- even more unfairly after seeing Ghoul School), but Ed Wood was bold and had vision -- a genuine love of movies and respect for his audience. I have to assume that Timothy O'Rawe hates me and all of humanity. There's just no other explanation.
Do I need to talk about the actors? I hate them. The actor playing the "nerd" does so by distorting his lower lip (yeah, yeah -- I've seen Caddyshack, too). The actor playing the principal reads his lines from the paper in front of him. Jackie "The Joke Man" Martling (who used his pull from The Howard Stern Show to get the film produced in order to showcase his wannabe-actress wife, Nancy Sirianni, who plays Roxie) and Joe Franklin make cameo appearances in a sequence that couldn't have less to do with the movie, in which Martling spouts off R-rated Milton Berle rejects while Franklin stares blankly into the camera, presumably praying for better representation or the sweet release of death. Sirianni proves to be the most talented actor in the cast: When she determinedly says "F**k that s**t!," I believe her.
There are some halfway creative gore effects (I say halfway because I'm almost positive that even when being ripped apart, the human body contains no octopus tentacles -- and is that speaker wire I see in there?) which the film is all too in love with -- every shot is lingered on a good five seconds longer than it ought to be. It would seem, in fact, that not a single frame of film has been left on the cutting room floor. This would explain why we don't just get an establishing shot of classes being let out, but rather get to watch every kid in the school come down the hallway in real time -- the sequence, like the rest of this horrible, horrible, movie, has to be seen to be believed.
It might also explain why we watch a crappy heavy metal band play through an entire song -- twice -- despite the fact that not one of the actors playing the musicians has any clue how to even fake his instrument. The guitarist is soloing when there are chords on the soundtrack (and vice versa), the drummer is playing a different rhythm altogether, and the bass player's hands don't even move. Was there really no one involved with the film who knew how to play? Not even enough to pretend? And could this movie have been filmed or edited in such a way as to disguise the incompetence? "The Zack Attack" was a more convincing band. We also watch the basketball team (outfitted in mullets and shirts with the names of local pizza places sprawled across them -- wouldn't it have been easier just to have ads constantly scrolling across the bottom of the screen?) shoot free throws and lay-ups for a good minute and a half, and no one makes a shot. Was there really no one involved with the film who could make a single lay-up? I've got about as much athletic prowess as Stephen Hawking, and I'm pretty sure I could do it. And could the movie not have been filmed or edited in such a way as to disguise the incompetence? Even if they only made one shot in twenty, that's the take to use. Don't keep it all in just to pad the running time some more.
Ghoul School is just about the sixtieth film I've reviewed here at DVD verdict, and though I never thought -- or hoped -- I would see a film worse than Lip Service, this one takes the prize of Worst One Yet. Not only is it the worst movie I've had to watch, but it makes for the worst DVD, too. The "remastered" transfer looks fairly awful (which is no surprise, as the original negative was tossed out), but that's most likely because the shot-on-16mm-but-looks-like-recycled-8mm source was crappy in the first place. The dialogue sounds as though it's been recorded into a sock, and underwater -- it's so muddy that you can't even tell what you're (not) missing. The disc has been packed with extras, too, but that's a little like adding power locks and windows to a Toyota that's engulfed in flames -- why throw on the bells and whistles when the main attraction is going to cause you so much pain and suffering?
There are two commentary tracks for Ghoul School (this despite the fact that the world still waits in anticipation for Steven Spielberg to record just one), one by director Timothy O'Rawe and one by cinematographer Michael Raso. The tracks, recorded fourteen years after the film was made, do manage to assuage some of the hostility the film inspires. O'Rawe recognizes that it's pretty bad (though not to the degree that it actually is, otherwise he would have made sure it got buried), accepting responsibility for the majority of the flaws and apologizing repeatedly. He's also managed to forget the names of nearly everyone who worked on the film and couldn't be bothered to research them before recording the commentary, a fact that smacks of the same deadbeat laziness that all of Ghoul School exudes. Raso, on the other hand, is more the historian -- he remembers nearly every detail about the production and spends a great deal of time trying to acquit himself by pointing out that his chief concern was the lighting (which, all things considered, looks decent).
Also included are trailers for both the 1990 and 2004 releases of Ghoul School (which are remarkably similar and steal the infinitely superior Return of the Living Dead's "Do You Wanna Party?" anthem); a couple of bonus trailers (other horror films shot on what looks like consumer-model half-inch VHS); outtakes of a Jackie Martling (that's Mr. Sirianni to you) standup routine originally meant to end the film; a makeup effects segment (a real waste of time considering the zombie makeup in Ghoul School consists of a few smears of electric blue paint); a trio of short films by O'Rawe; and a promotional teaser shot to drum up interest -- the makeup, photography, special effects and production values in this piece are all far superior to the finished film, hinting at what the film might have been with even the tiniest effort.
Look, no one expects to strike cinema gold with a film called Ghoul School, but every movie should succeed on its own terms. This one doesn't succeed on any terms, and sitting through the duration of its (admittedly short) running time was a difficult and unhappy experience. Just because someone bothered to make Ghoul School doesn't mean it should have been released. I mean, if I made a dinner that I knew was going to make everyone violently ill, I probably wouldn't serve it. Some things should just be thrown out.
I hate my life.
Review content copyright © 2004 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Tempe Video
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 72 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentary by Director Timothy O'Rawe
* Audio Commentary by Cinematographer Michael L. Raso
* Jackie Martling "Chlorine Punchlines" Routine
* 1988 Teaser Showreel with Optional Commentary
* "Shock Cinema" Makeup Effects Segment
* Three Short Films by Director Timothy O'Rawe
* 1990 and 2004 Release Trailers
* Bonus Trailers