Nobody’s perfect. Even the best have an off-day once in a while. Critics and horror fans alike regard John Carpenter as one of the genre’s greatest filmmakers. Certainly, the praise is well placed. Carpenter’s filmography includes bona fide classics – Halloween, The Thing, and Escape From New York. And his smaller movies – Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog, They Live – are cult classics. Arguably, In The Mouth of Madness is one of the best horror movies of the 1990s. Unfortunately, Carpenter’s 2001 effort, Ghosts of Mars, hasn’t fared as well. A box office and critical failure, Carpenter fans tend to forget this campy horror/sci-fi movie. But several Carpenter movies were initially considered flops before achieving cult status. Nearly 20 years later, is Ghosts of Mars ready for critical re-evaluation?
In 2176, a Mars-based police force is commissioned to transfer wanted outlaw, Desolation Williams, from a Martian mining camp. When the officers arrive at the remote outpost, they find it abandoned with the corpses of its residents strewn across the buildings. Only the outpost’s prisoners have survived in their cells. During the mining operation, the ‘ghosts’ of Mars’ original inhabitants were released. Now the police task force must band together with Desolation Williams to fight their way out of the camp.
Ghosts of Mars Haunted By Poor Effects
Several of Carpenter’s greatest successes were independent, low-budget movies. In fact, Carpenter was a master at getting the most without lucrative Hollywood budgets. And Ghost of Mars was familiar territory for Carpenter in more ways than one. That is, Carpenter’s directorial debut, Dark Star, and Escape From New York both adopted science fiction themes. Additionally, Ghosts of Mars is somewhat of a spiritual remake of Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, which itself was inspired by Rio Bravo. The story of law enforcement or ‘sheriffs’ banding together with outlaws to defend against hostile intruders was a favourite Carpenter theme.
The story of law enforcement or ‘sheriffs’ banding together with outlaws to defend against hostile intruders was a favourite Carpenter theme.
While Assault on Precinct 13 was a raw, gritty low-budget thriller, Ghost of Mars feels unintentionally campy. Maybe it’s the special effects. Clearly, Carpenter didn’t have the budget to pull off everything in the movie. A few low budget scenes get passes. Yes, the train is obviously a model but it doesn’t really pull you out of the movie. But some of the CGI blood and gore falls well short of expectations. Poor Clea DuVall’s beheading looks awful. Moreover, several of the action sequences are either plainly or clumsily staged. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, when movies like Krull could exist, Escape From New York could get away with its lower budget. With special effects advancements, however, contemporary audiences had higher expectations.
Tonal Inconsistency and Lack of Scares
Still Ghosts of Mars could have compensated for poor special effects if the movie was intended as a ‘tongue-in-cheek’ space western. Regardless of Carpenter’s intent, Ghosts of Mars can’t seem to strike the right tone. If it was meant to be intentionally funny, it isn’t. In fact, Ghosts of Mars isn’t really unintentionally funny either. None of the cast seem to be playing the material for laughs. Moreover, the gore isn’t tapping into an over-the-top Evil Dead vibe. It’s also relatively tame for with what was coming in the horror genre that decade. These woes are exacerbated by the movie’s jumbled storytelling. Too many needless flashbacks slow the movie down. Instead of a relentless assault, Ghosts of Mars often feels lackadaisical.
Instead of a relentless assault, Ghosts of Mars often feels lackadaisical.
If it’s not funny, silly, or gory enough, at least Ghosts of Mars was scary. Right? That’s a hard no. You won’t find so much as a jump scare. Choppy editing during key action scenes also suck out most of the suspense. Even the movie’s titular ghosts aren’t all that interesting. POV-shots of the ghostly red mist seeking a host just feel silly. Then there’s the movie’s mutilated, possessed hosts. Most of these interchangeable villains look like KISS band cast-offs. Only stuntman Richard Cetrone’s ‘Big Daddy Mars’ makes any impression. As creepy as the character looks, he’s instantly made laughable one he starts screaming incoherently.
Ghosts of Mars Wastes Talented Cast
For a low-budget ‘space western’, Ghosts of Mars features quite a few recognizable character actors and up-and-comer’s. Natasha Henstridge had already made a name for herself in genre features like Species. A young Jason Statham (The Meg) – with a little more hair – has a prominent role. Clea DuVall (The Faculty) and Robert Carradine (Orca) also have small parts. Aside from Henstridge, Ghosts of Mars wastes its talented cast. How do you cast Pam Grier and then kill her off-screen a third of the way into the movie? As Desolation Williams, Ice Cube had the opportunity to be the next ‘Snake Plissken’. Cube had all the swagger and charisma needed for the role. Plus the character is named ‘Desolation Williams’. It doesn’t get much better. Too bad Ice Cube had little with which to work. Ghosts of Mars saddles him with some stiff dialogue.
Ghosts of Mars Too Campy To Be Scary, Not Campy Enough To Be Cult
Poor Ghosts of Mars. Like that yearbook photo you wish you could make vanish, it definitely ranks low on John Carpenter’s filmography. Treading familiar ground for the director, Ghosts of Mars is far too campy to be scary. On the other hand, the movie never fully embraces its tongue-in-cheek potential. As a result, Ghosts of Mars is an oddly flat movie that’s almost instantly forgettable. And that’s the exact opposite of what makes a movie a cult classic.