In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — seven from 1991 (the extra in a forthcoming double-feature column) and six from 2001. The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars isn’t anyone’s favorite John Carpenter movie, least of all John Carpenter. The icon himself pins his retirement from mainstream filmmaking to the critical dismissal and financial failure of the 2001 film. The basic gist here is that a routine prisoner transport on a colonized Red Planet circa 2176 turns into a battle against the ghosts of indigenous Martian warriors that are possessing humans and turning them into bloodthirsty, body-modifying mobs. There’s also a scene in which a criminal who’s high on drugs suddenly severs his own thumb while trying to show off for a woman he fancies. “That’s what you get, dumbass!,” Ice Cube cracks in his trademark tenor of comic condemnation while the rest of the characters laugh at the injured man … who licks his wounds by huffing more drugs.
Today, Carpenter has cobbled together a far more relaxing regimen: smoking drugs of his own, playing video games, racking up occasional perfunctory producer credits on other people’s remakes of his work (2005’s The Fog or 2018’s Halloween), directing occasional TV episodes (and one not-great film, The Ward), composing ominous synthscapes perfect for films forever ensconced only in his mind, and even remixing songs for the band CHVRCHES while he’s at it.
There’s also little love lost for Ghosts from Cube, whom studio Screen Gems (Sony Pictures’ horror imprint) insisted on for the lead role of Desolation Williams. (Carpenter envisioned Jason Statham, who’s still here, and boasting an atypically hirsute head, only as Mars copper Jericho Butler.) Cube reportedly called Ghosts the worst movie he’s ever done, something he agreed to as a chance to work with the creator of Halloween after which he felt more tricked than treated.
If John Carpenter is involved, who wouldn’t want to play a morally dubious, legendarily evasive criminal spoken of in hushed tones by hardliners tasked to control him? After all, Desolation Williams sure sounds like a re-skinned Snake Plissken, the legendary hero Carpenter and Kurt Russell introduced in 1981’s Escape from New York. This film allegedly started out as a script for Escape from Mars, although the big-budget bust of Carpenter and Russell’s (unfairly maligned) 1996 sequel, Escape from L.A., ankled any notion of a trilogy. The problem is that Cube is so desperate to play Desolation as a hardline archetype, he simply can’t see that Carpenter has written Williams more like Jack Burton from 1986’s classic Carpenter-Russell collaboration Big Trouble in Little China. Even the character’s name feels like a joke, along with all the moments where Desolation takes charge of approximately jack and shit. Interpreting this guy as an indomitable badass? That’s what you get, dumbass.
To be fair, the whole film is written like Jack Burton — amusingly cocksure in its constant clamoring, equally prone to seeming in the wrong place at the wrong time, similarly accidental in any success it finds. “It’s called Ghosts of Mars, for Christ’s sake,” Carpenter is alleged to have said about the film. “Why would people take this movie seriously?” John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars could just as easily be called John Carpenter’s Fuck Around and Find Out.
Opening on a model-and-matte effect that might be cool if this were an eighth-grade video project, Ghosts clearly won’t be rivaling any of Carpenter’s more convincing visions of future decay. It starts with a train rolling in on autopilot upon return from the Shining Canyon Mine in Mars’s southern valley. What should be a full passenger list is found to be just one: Mars Police Force Lt. Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge), who’s also handcuffed to her bunk. A good cop with a bad addiction to a hallucinatory drug called Clear, Ballard arrives with a wild tale that she relays via flashback under inquisition of the Matriarchy. The Matriarchy is the ruling body on Mars, but they also somehow answer to the Cartel. What’s the Cartel? It’s never really explained. What, you’re still wondering what it might be? That’s what you get, dumbass.
The initial mission is to transport Williams, an outlaw temporarily detained at Shining Canyon. In addition to Ballard and Jericho, there’s Commander Braddock (Pam Grier), Officers Kincaid (Clea DuVall) and Descanso (Liam Waite), train engineer McSimms (Peter Jason, a regular Carpenter repertory player) and conductor Rodale (Robert Carradine, in a bizarrely small role). As Braddock says, they’ll have to be “jack-ready and double tough,” whatever “jack-ready” is.
This group arrives to a ghost town at Shining Canyon, quite odd what with all the “money to burn, whores to fuck and drugs to take.” But they soon find Williams and a few other folks — including a scientist played by sci-fi genre veteran Joanna Cassidy — are much safer behind bars. Cassidy’s scientist was part of a team that unwittingly unleashed the Martian ghosts from their ancient resting place. To escape, this crew will have to look past their cop-versus-criminal grievances, make their way past the blade-slinging warriors assembled by Big Daddy Mars (Richard Cetrone), and concoct a plan to crush the ghosts for good.
The first act here is brutally paced and relentlessly humorless. It resembles a slapdash campfire tale uttered in the wee hours by a weary storyteller who feels obligated only because a few folks are still awake. There are flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks, suffused with details Ballard couldn’t possibly know. Carpenter’s score (performed alongside Buckethead, Steve Vai and Anthrax) feels more generically metal-riffed than its counterparts. The perspective of Martian ghosts as they seek more bodies to invade carries the distinctly cheap look of early-millennia digital film. Plus, with all the dissolves, wipes and fades, you might wonder if Carpenter might have hit the drugs a bit too hard before stepping away from the camera.
Then again, there is simply so much structural and visual oddity here that Carpenter can’t possibly just be phoning it in. There’s some sort of purpose to this, right? Maybe he’s cutting once, measuring never and seeing what he can build with these scraps.
Without overblowing it, Carpenter carves a Russian nesting doll of unreliable narration with Ballard at the center. We’re familiar enough with the pace of Ballard’s hallucinations to also recognize their rhythms in the “reality” she’s relaying to the Matriarchy. Could this all just be one of her grand delusions? Taken this way, what feels like sloppy work from Carpenter and editor Paul C. Warschilka instead lends Ghosts an intriguing dimension, and it’s only compounded for dramatic and comic effect by the arrival of three strangers known only as Uno, Dos and Tres (Duane Davis, Lobo Sebastian and Rodney A. Grant, respectively).
From there, Ghosts also expresses more of Carpenter’s wit, like when Dos goes dumbass to sever his own thumb. He also indulges his uncontrollably giddy gorehound, too, in crackerjack visual timing for some of the heroes’ deaths (particularly a pair of hoot-and-holler decapitations), how a possessed human utilizes a pair of cut-off hands, and in how the Martian spirits seem to insist that their human hosts regularly hurt themselves to establish a baseline of penitent pain.
That last bit also ties into vintage Carpenter, providing often practical advice to put aside assurances from those in power that everything is fine. The remaining survivors’ discussion of a rah-rah plan to defeat the ghosts once and for all is deliberately dispassionate. Carpenter doesn’t expect us to root for this. If anything, we empathize with those who’ve awoken only to find another race has turned their planet into as much of a shithole as the one they left behind. Carpenter expects us to laugh at all of these humans’ hubris. Consider that Ghosts of Mars opened not long before the latest incarnation of a forever war in Afghanistan, and it also takes on elements of a pulp parable for the impossibility of occupation. That’s what you get, dumbass.
So, it’s the cultish mania of In the Mouth of Madness, the infection and invasion aspects of The Thing, the Western vibe of Vampires, the ancient evil of Prince of Darkness and a hardy-har homage to anarchic archetypes of Escape from New York and Escape from L.A. Carpenter’s messy melange of so many midnight triumphs past is pretty much all that distinguishes Ghosts. If it had better visual effects, maybe more people would have enjoyed it. Then again, if it had better visual effects, all those Carpenterian oddities wouldn’t rattle around in the brain as they do. Again: Anyone who asserts that this is their favorite Carpenter movie is just being purposefully perverse. However, there’s still more fun to be had with this than you might expect. But asking Ghosts of Mars to explain itself to you? I think you know what you’d get from that.