Ouch… this movie carried such high expectations that its failure on so many levels came as a major disappointment. After such remarkably entertaining schlock-horror epics (and legitimate cinematic masterpieces) as “Hallowe’en,” “ In the Mouth of Madness,” and “Escape from New York,” “Ghosts of Mars (GoM)” came of as a…hurried and uncreative effort. Perhaps some of the blame falls on the co-authorship of the screenplay by the inexperienced Larry Sulkis (in contrast to “Mouth of Madness” use of Michael De Luca).
Whatever the cause is, the blundering attempts at chronological trickery serve to create a very fragmented and unrewarding timeline, and the sets, violence, special effects, and everything else are very low budget and poorly executed. Natasha Henstridge should stick to modeling, and I think I speak for all of us when I say that Ice Cube’s “angry black male” routine is getting old, and is particularly out of context on Mars. Special effects are kept to a bare minimum: the “ghosts” are lame cgi clouds, the possessed people have (gasp!) SCARY MAKEUP, and they’re wearing (yikes!) torn clothes!! I see more frightening people when I park downtown. Camera work appears amateurish with action poorly framed, shot switches poorly timed, and so on. Post-production for the DVD was also disappointing – light levels are terrible, and although the video quality is good (as is the case with any transfer of a recent film) it is still hard to watch, as you must perpetually peer into the gloom searching for whatever the camera is supposed to be showing. The one gem is the audio, as we’ll discuss a little later.
OK, I’ll admit that this has been a pretty harsh assessment, but my fundamental complaint is that you don’t need a giant special effects budget to craft a good film. “In the Mouth of Madness” and “Memento” are the best examples that I can think of – unique, innovative, low budget, and fantastic example of their genres. GoM aspires to be a big budget mega production, but lack the budget comes off as a lame example of compromise driven movie making. If you enjoyed this movie, you can rest assured that this is the version to own on DVD – I sincerely doubt that any more attention will be lavished on this disc. The audio and video on the disc are great (given the movie), and the special features have genuine value for fans.
Ah yes… the sound. How, with all of the rest of this film’s missteps, did Columbia manage to create such a stirring 5.1 audio track? The subwoofers in my car have rendered me nearly deaf, but Jeremy assures me that the soundstage was well utilized, with surrounds active constantly (only kidding about my deafness – you can trust my audio reviews, really). In outdoor scenes, surrounds are used create a creepy ambient sound environment… indoors, fight scenes are audibly followed in three dimensions… fantastic. The subwoofer is employed constantly and with subtlety, exactly as it should be. There are no randomly orphaned gouts of bass as found in so many films – instead it buttresses and lends superb depth to the rest of the speakers – again, a fantastic execution. Willie Burton did the original audio production for the movie, and his experience with movies like “the Game,” “Metro,” and “Se7en” clearly translate to this DVD.
As was mentioned, “budget” was the theme of the initial camera work used in the film. As demonstrated by extra features of the discs detailing the filming, a minimal number of cameras were used to shoot each scene, evidently leaving editors with little to work with in the cutting room. As such, scenes are shot from bizarre angles, with action hard to follow and the geography of the movie difficult to discern. Additionally, as noted by one of the special features, the entire film was shot at night – interesting considering that Mars is by no means a dark place, and annoying because (as mentioned), the entire film takes place in a gloomy poorly lit world. While undoubtedly good for concealing low budget props, it makes the movie a literal effort to watch, as you are constantly squinting and peering, trying to discern what’s happening.
The transfer is clean and solid (no damage, etc), but I really think that the DVD engineers missed a good chance to fool with the light levels and increase the “watchability” of this movie. One positive aspect of the low light is that blacks are deeeeep… only rarely have I seen blacks this absolute and complete. Also in the film’s favour is the quality of the picture – while it may be less than perfect from a cinematic standpoint, dollars were evidently invested in the celluloid itself as grain is non-existent.
One of the most interesting things about the video is the question of encoding and space: there are two presentations of the video (full and wide), a 5.1 soundtrack, and extras stashed onto this DVD. Ooops – now I understand – check out that runtime: 98 minutes. It seemed to drag on forever watching it stumble to its conclusion, but in reality this is a short movie.
As the definitive Special Edition release of this movie, the disc is replete with extras. The Special Effects Deconstruction is the most interesting – it offers lots of great footage of actors cavorting in front of blue screens (actually more turquoise than cerulean), shots of stunt doubles launching off of air jacks and throwing themselves into walls and so on. This feature is strictly visual – there’s no commentary from Carpenter or anyone else, and little dialog.
Other features include a windy dissertation on the clangorous soundtrack, standard fare filmographies, and an interesting commentary by Carpenter and Henstridge. Boy, they’re really milking the Henstridge tie-in – she’s a model, for crying out loud, not a cinematographer. Oh well. As mentioned above these features are all legitimate – a definite cut above the fluffy filler that pads so many discs, and will undoubtedly be of value to Carpenter fans.
This movie was intended to be the jewel in Carpenter’s horror crown (“a galaxy of terror”), but it looks as if budgets and political wrangling ruined it from its conception onwards. Amateurish, underfunded, and trotting out the same tired racial stereotype and mindless-killing-machine monsters, this movie has earned a place in B-movie collections everywhere. The DVD itself is a pretty sparkling example of the flexibility of the format. So, if you’re a Carpenter or GoM fan, put this one on your Christmas list and add it to your collection. Otherwise, search back through Carpenter’s work for some of his better efforts – there’s lots.
Special Features List
- Video diary: Red Desert Nights
- Widescreen and Fullscreen presentations
- Featurette: “Scoring Ghost of Mars”
- Special effects (SFX) deconstructions
- Commentary by John Carpenter and Natasha Henstridge