Part One: I Don’t Remember Much, But Dammit, I Remember The Willies (1990)
The heading for this particular outing should be self-explanatory. I once, somewhere in the hazy shades of childhood, bore witness to a cinematic atrocity called The Willies. I say “atrocity” because even at my young age, I knew that I was watching a really bad movie.
Perhaps I should backtrack, though, and explain to my audience (left in the dark) what The Willies is.
I am working from a very foggy memory, but here is my best description.
The Willies falls into that classic Bastian of the horror genre, which is known as the anthology film. Other examples would include Creepshow and Tales from the Hood. The obvious difference between those movies and The Willies is that it is ostensibly “for children.” Kids sit around the campfire and tell each other familiar urban legends to give themselves (you guessed it) “the Willies.”
Remember the story about the rat discovered in the KFC bucket? That one gets a fine rendition here.
How about the one where the old woman puts her poodle in the microwave “to dry off?” That is here, too.
I have two enduring memories of this movie myself:
- · One of the stories features an old man who goes for a ride through an amusement park Haunted House. One of the rooms features a lovely “Jack the Ripper” theme, complete with a hooker getting her throat slashed! (Remember, this is family entertainment.)
- · The most memorable sequence has to do with a boy who collects flies. From my memory, the flies turn on him and end up eating off his arm. (Once again, fun for the whole family!)
I said that I remembered this movie being truly horrible…even at a young age. The catch, of course, is that I also remember being very disconcerted by the aforementioned stories. This was rated PG-13, but at various points it felt like it was damn near an R. Yet, it was innocuously slapped on video with smiling children on the cover.
Look, this has never become a Holy Grail film for me. I haven’t searched high and low to find it. In fact, I have passed up two or three chances to own the movie on ratty old VHS tapes. I figured that if I bought one of those my chance to revisit the movie with a pristine image would be sacrificed.
Then, recently, the movie found me again the muck of the “Big K” discount bin. I had no idea that it had gotten a legit DVD release. I had no clue that I could purchase it for a mere $1.99.
(By the way; if you want to feel deeply depressed about yourself and humanity…take a trip to your local Big K. Or, better yet, don’t…)
That has all happened, and now The Willies is waiting to have the cellophane torn off.
It’s time to go back, friends. Back to the days of hooker throat slashing and killer flies…
Part Two: The Verdict Is In (And What is It?)
The Willies is just as painstakingly miserable as I remember it being.
Even more importantly, it is way nastier and mean spirited than even I had recollected.
The first beast to tackle, however, is the bizarre disconnect between what I remember and what I don’t.
- · There is an entire story about a child-eating monster in a public school restroom that I totally forgot. This one has a surprisingly bloody pay off…how many kids’ films feature a teacher being sucked into a vent system and seeing her blood spat out? The movie goes even further beyond that as the school nerd locks his bullies in with the stop motion creature. Guess what happens to them? (Children in extinguishment and peril…once again, just good clean fun.)
- · I had forgotten the complete details of what will be dubbed “The Gordy Belcher Saga.” Gordy Belcher (played by the “fat kid from Salute Your Shorts” Michael Bowen) is not just a simple fly collector. He has decided to cohabitate with them, creating a bizarre little “fly town” in his parents’ basement. (This comes complete with a “fly church” in which a fly is crucified just like Jesus.) I also forgot about Gordy’s dynamic with an older farmer who has found a while to mutate vegetables to epic sizes. (This is a bit of a nod to similar comic motif in Woody Allen’s Sleeper.) The farmer is the one who provides Gordy with the solution to grow giant flies. That is why his arms are eaten off at the end of the tale. You even get a lovely parting shot of him attempting to scratch himself with his Rolling Thunder style hook. Isn’t that fun, kids?
I mentioned that this movie feels jarringly mean spirited. That is because there is not much of a “light touch.” The best example of this comes in the stories that the kids tell each other before the opening credits roll.
The poodle is indeed exploded in the microwave by an old lady. Everything about the way the scene is constructed says: “Isn’t this a riot?” The problem is that the laugh never shows up, and almost collapses under the strain. The poodle explodes, and it is just undeniably tragic. The counter balance to this scene would be the pie-eating contest in Stand by Me. That had a healthy ironic distance that allowed the audience to be in on the joke. The tragedy in The Willies feels a bit too “real.”
That is equally (if not even more so) true of the sequence I previously mentioned where the old man is in the haunted house. The old guy doesn’t make it; and his death is used as a punch line. I would feel differently if the old guy had somehow “deserved” what he had coming to him. The thing is that he is played as a likable old duffer that is traumatized by his journey. What’s so funny about a defenseless old man having a heart attack and croaking?
There is also nothing particular “scary” about these two sequences. Was the intention to make kids laugh, gross them out, or scare them horribly? I can’t honesty tell…does anyone know?
The strangest thing about this movie is that there isn’t one clear decision made about its direction. The “Gordy Belcher” extended sequence is a particular violator of this confusion. Gordy could very easily be made into a sympathetic “outsider” character. He is instead just as deplorable as everyone else that surrounds him. (His parents are particularly horrid as they sit around the dinner table and verbally abuse Gordy.) By the time his fate has arrived, there is no real reason to feel anything about it. The irony is not there, nor is any palpable pathos. The kid gets his limbs eaten off, and that is the end of that. (Did the people who make this film viciously hate children?)
Look, the movie does succeed on the “grosser than gross” level. (The kids even tell “grosser than gross” jokes around the fire.) There is not much beyond that, though, other than things that still make me feel a tad uncomfortable as a grown up.
I know that this is still an innately bad little movie…. there’s no denying that. Still, I have multiple questions as to what the filmmakers were aiming for. Were there not test screenings that revealed that children are terrified by severed limbs? Did the studio ever receive irate phone calls from parents about the throat slashing? How was this thing even marketed? Or did it just show up at my local video to disconcert me?
Who the hell was the audience supposed to be for this? I can tell you one at least one personal observation for certain. I’m not a parent myself, but I can hypothetically imagine myself as one. I can imagine my child pulled this movie off the shelf, looked up at me with gleaming eyes, and saying: “Daddy, may we please rent this?” I would answer with a resounding: “Hell no, you little shit! Put that fucking thing back!” (That’s, after all, exactly how I would speak to my children…if I had some.)
The Willies is not a movie I would recommend to any rational person. (There are plenty of irrational people I would recommend this, too. That is entirely beside the point, though). The only reason I watched it again was to see if it lived up to my memory. Was this movie as wronged headed as I thought it was?
I would have to give you a wholehearted yes.
This entry gave me a case of “The Willies.”