I’m promising to publish at least one Midnight Film review every Friday or Saturday this year, starting with two underrated John Carpenter classics, one of which recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary, while the other is nearing forty. Both, though, summon dark energies against idealist vistas, reanimating American folklore to render it monstrous, implying that the nation’s cultural norms and iconography will be its own undoing.
Although it didn’t officially put John Carpenter in director jail, one suspects that everyone involved would just as soon forget 2001’s Ghosts of Mars. It doesn’t even get the respect that similar-era catastrophes like Battlefield Earth and The Room receive, resigning itself to the historical dustbin of “just another bad film.” Perhaps the blame truly lays at Carpenter’s feet: just as his major achievements work in fascinatingly minor keys, so too do his ostensible failures refuse to grant us easy access to their odds and ends, their opaque mysteries and strange digressions. They refuse to go bad in a big, obvious way, preferring workmanlike craftsmanship and subtle twists of the knife. On the surface, Ghosts of Mars is a by-the-numbers failure, an indifferently bad film, rather than an exceptionally bad one. A self-consciously minorized work, an exploratory termite in an elephant’s world, it is absolutely Carpenter-esque: spare, spartan, economical, but also subtly exploratory and strange, eating away at itself by exploring its nooks and crannies, taking the form of a carpenter building a chair and the termites that are simultaneously devouring it.
The film begins simply enough. Lieutenant Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) sits in front of a military tribunal of sorts, and she recounts what went wrong on Mars on a recent mission. Ballard was the second in command on a military squad led by Commander Helena Braddock (Pam Grier) and including Sergeant Jericho Butler (Jason Statham), Officer Bashira Kincaid (Clea Duvall), and a red shirt. Sent to a mining colony on Mars in the late 22nd century, they are ostensibly on-site to pick up (phenomenally named) prisoner Desolation Williams (Ice Cube), accused of killing at least six bystanders while robbing the colony. When they get there, they find that the colony is mostly empty, until, of course, they see the once-living population, now somewhere between zombies and carnivalesque Mad Max impersonators in a Grand Guignol, looking to make the red planet all the redder.
Eventually, we learn that the once-living colonists are inhabited by the titular ghosts of Mars, unleashed from the planet’s core in the mining process. We also learn from one of the few remaining uncolonized inhabitants Joanna Cassidy (Dr. Arlene Whitlock) that when the host is killed, the ghost simply floats on to the next available body, which means our heroes’ indiscriminate habit of killing the zombified humans isn’t necessarily in their own best interest.
But they’re military. They shoot, almost unthinkingly, and pay the price for their own colonization of the planet, which Ballard at one point remarks, matter-of-factly and without a hint of irony, is a quest for “dominion”. A typically Hawksian woman in the Carpenteresque mold – smart, adept, prodigiously capable – she, like everyone in the film, nonetheless knows much less about what is going on than she lets on, something that Carpenter is admirably blunt about. While the set-up is simple, the film propagates unknowns and elisions, registering an almost cosmic sense of cinema acting in tandem with the ghosts to unmake and undo the characters’ sense of competence, to work in the penumbra of their very blinkered vision.
As with many of John Carpenter’s films, Ghosts of Mars animates traditional fears of an otherized collective force, here diffused into the very ether of the planet itself. The multitudinous “other” isn’t so much the miners themselves as the vaporous ghosts of the planet, a vitalist force incorporeally let loose by imperial prying, resisting as though directly tethered to the spirit of the planet. Reasoning minds literally cannot glimpse them, and when they enter a human body, they hollow out the body’s capacity for reason, the beacon of western enlightenment liberalism and the notion of individualized capacity, as any horror horde does. This is a familiarly Carpenter-esque subject matter, replayed as ethnic strife and mid-‘70s ennui in Assault on Precinct 13, as homosocial fears about individual reason and non-sovereign bodies in his seminal The Thing, as spooky memories of an impure, unclaimed small-town past in The Fog, and as a turf war between science and mysticism in Prince of Darkness.
All those references suggest that Ghosts sometimes feels less like its own object than a hollowed-out body infused with the ghosts of Carpenter’s older works, and it does feel more like a slice of a greater whole. Indeed, the film began life as a second sequel to Carpenter’s Escape from New York entitled Escape from Mars, the seminal work featuring Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken as the ultimate avatar of anti-establishment post-‘60s libertarianism, social disreputability, and ennui personified in his quiet, commanding, Eastwood-ian hush that makes sure you lean in to hear what he, and the film, are saying. Because Escape from LA, the wacky 1996 sequel to NY in which Carpenter’s comic subversiveness is on full display, failed at the box office, Escape from Mars never materialized under that name. Plissken was renamed, Ice Cube now in the role.
Fittingly, Ghosts often feels like it’s being torn apart by cinema history, even if it digs its claws into its forebears as well. It even adopts the skeletal structure of a Western standoff, much as Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 drew and quartered Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, here comically ironized in the setting: a literal desert in New Mexico died red to play the part of Mars. The Western story structure and filming location suggests the long history of space being mythologized as yet another final frontier, a new way to replay the American craving for vitality, energy, and lively masculinity (and, in turn, domination and control) that Theodore Roosevelt called the American “strenuous life”. Carpenter’s film works to critique this unthinkingness of imperial domination and expansion, stopping somewhere between the more piquant pistol slugs of Anthony Mann, to name one of the classic Western period’s most self-critical auteurs, and Michelangelo Antonioni’s horror of the soul in Zabriskie Point, where the post-‘60s American West was figured as already on course to apocalypse, waywardly searching for a semblance of soul in the debris. Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars seems to have derailed just before that apocalyptic point, casting a dark vision of American frontier folklore and turning delusions of domination in on themselves without quite disowning them.
Despite his ambivalence and his stripped-down classicism, though, Carpenter was never fully trapped in the past. Ghosts uncannily resonates with the Japanese and Korean technological horror popular at the time in lo-fi video sequences representing the unleashed ghosts of Martian pasts. When a ghost is unbound from a body, the video switches to handheld, digital video, the medium which democratized aspects of cinema production during the ‘80s, as though digital video is assaulting classical celluloid itself. Much as Carpenter’s earlier Christine allegorizes the self-destructive love for classical machinery and old-school cinematic iconography, Ghosts (perhaps unthinkingly) sides digital cameras with a collective, unmoored oppressed.
And Carpenter’s use of regular film techniques pack a strange, uncanny punch too. If Carpenter’s film plays on classical Western hues, it also bloodies them, rendering them slantwise. Rudimentary facets of cinematic continuity like space and time are tweaked and left somewhat unhinged, as though the film itself were being invaded by the spirits that threaten the characters, wandering around, getting lost on its path to a conclusion that, when the film remembers it, just suddenly arrives. The story structure is silently sinister, doubling and tripling up nested flashbacks that hover in curious relation to the forward thrust of the bare-bones plot. While the geography of the mining town is seemingly linear, providing a stand-off-ready Western main street, the film keeps us (and the characters) running in circles, editing against the grain to deny us spatial awareness. Producing a mood of demented carnivalesque, Carpenter extends the comic-western tone and perverted Americana that took center stage in Escape from LA, with its Grand Guignol parodies of cosmetic surgery and surfer culture. In Ghosts though, the very nuts and bolts of cinema craft seem to be intervening in the characters’ journey.
And that is if we can call them characters. Their smug, mannequin-like deliveries suggest their own hollow nature, inhuman puppets to colonialism before they were ever “infected” by the red planet’s undead. Carpenter’s film uncannily stages itself as a paltry plaything, suggesting that everyone involved is a weapon of wider, unglimpsed forces. Only Williams seems to suggest the curdled, fatalistic nihilism that Carpenter’s apocalyptic films have always so effectively imbued with cosmic, ethereal texture. The world is doomed, the film suggests, and a film like Ghosts of Mars can do little to stop it.
Ghosts of Mars, then, isn’t exactly a socialist paradise, and it has no alternative vision to speak of. Carpenter, befitting his namesake, remains skeptical of any romantic artistic solution, any visionary sense of truth, preferring to chasten and cut-up, to embody a playful nihilism that begins the work of remaking without completing the vision. Ghosts of Mars doesn’t have the outlaw energy of Escape from LA or the sublime cosmic entropy of In the Mouth of Madness. But it refuses such sublimity, preferring a lean and mean cinematic chassis, a straightforward costume, that it quietly tears to pieces, almost past the point where it can sustain itself, maybe even past the point where it can work as a film, nesting flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks in one of the most quietly odd B-pictures of the past few decades, and proof that Carpenter remained an intriguing, idiosyncratic filmmaker even on the verge of premature retirement.