31 Days to Scare ~ The Willies

The Facts:

Synopsis: Two brothers camping with their cousin try to frighten each other by telling stories.

Stars:  Sean Astin, Jason Horst, Joshua Miller, James Karen, Dana Ashbrook, Kathleen Freeman, Jeremy Miller, Clu Gulager, Michael Bower

Director: Brian Peck

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  It’s around this time of year that I really start to miss video stores.  I know there are a few left here and there but they’re often packed to the brim with overstock DVDs and VHS tapes culled from shuttered mom and pop stores.  These can be an overwhelming mountain to climb, only worth it if you have a truckload of time to spare or are aren’t looking for anything specific.  I still prefer the days when the rental franchises hadn’t kicked in yet and your friendly neighborhood video store had full but not packed shelves of titles to choose from.

Every store did their checkout process their own way but my favorite was always the ones that had the display box sitting in front of the rental case (if it was in).  That way you could always see what movies the store had and could keep an eye on a title if you happened to miss it on that particular trip.  In 1990, when The Willies was released, finding the single copy of the movie in at Good Neighbor Video in South Minneapolis was a nearly impossible feat.  The store didn’t do reservations so you had to be in the right place at the right time to snag a copy.  I remember waiting for weeks to rent it, making a beeline for it’s location every time I entered the store only to be disappointed when there was no rental case in place.  Then, one day, there it was and it was finally my turn to get…The Willies.

Another entry in the line of popular anthology films like After Midnight and Cat’s Eye, The Willies is a teen-targeted horror comedy that’s best viewed now through the lens of forgiving nostalgia.  After looking for a copy and not willing to pay a high price tag (it’s since come out on a cheaper disc), I watched the film on YouTube and was surprised at the quality.  It’s no 4K BluRay but for a low-budget, mostly-forgotten film from the ‘90s it doesn’t look too shabby streaming on the popular website.  In fact, if you’ve been on the hunt for a particular movie (or, better yet, a television movie from the ’70s or ’80s), YouTube is the place to go because I’ve found a lot of good content there recently.

The basic premise of the film finds three boys (including Sean Astin, Gloria Bell) telling campfire tales, each trying to outdo the other in the scare department.  After three initial quick-fire tales that are amusing in their own juvenile gross-out ways (the woman trying to dry her poodle in the microwave has stuck with me for the last 29 years), we move on to two longer tales with a bit more meat on the bones.  A bullied kid finds an ally at school that gives his tormentors something more sinister than a week of detention is a bit rough in the narrative department but boasts some fun performances from familiar faces James Karen (Poltergeist) and Kathleen Freeman (Hocus Pocus).  The next yarn involves a young outsider obsessed with insects that makes the mistake of stealing enhanced manure from a local farmer.  When he introduces the fertilizer to his bugs, they turn the tables on him and do more than put him under the magnifying glass.

Writer/director Brian Peck has managed to put together the film in a neat little package, often suggesting it’s better than it’s obviously small budget.  Most of the effects are handled well, as are the gore and make-up for the more ghoulish scares.  There are some clever in-jokes related to some of the cast members (listen for the reference to The Goonies directed at Astin’s character) and Peck managed to call in a few favors by featuring recognizable TV stars of the time in brief cameos.  Amassing a decent amount of fans over the years, this is one I think would be a nice candidate for some company to pick up for a Collector’s Edition BluRay.  It would be nice to hear more from the people involved in the making of it or at least see the film print cleaned up a bit.  It’s not anything that will keep you up at night (from fear or regret from watching it) but it serves as a nice reminder of how effective a movie can be based solely on positive intent.