Ghosts of Mars
I might have more sympathy for John Carpenter’s protests that Ghosts of Mars was misunderstood if the content did more to support the idea that it was intentionally over-the-top and tongue-in-cheek. Such as silly/amusing plotting and characters and campiness instead of scares. It does rather come across, as per his defence of Escape from L.A. being better than the original, as trying to cover the ineptitude of the production with the old “It was meant to be ‘so bad it was good’; it was self-consciously, post-modernly bad” excuse.
To be fair to JC, I’m going by the Wikipedia quote, which is not unexpurgated, and he may have said additional things about his take that clarified matters. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s smarting exactly as much as he sounds like he is there; it led to a nine-year (feature) directing hiatus, and it’s been the same time again since then (The Ward wasn’t received a whole lot better). But when you see stylistic reference to such diverse (by intent) fare as Rambo: First Blood Part II, Commando and Predator… Well, yeah, there’s self-consciousness in the latter two, but Predator for one is also incredibly well made. Rambo: First Blood Part II has none of the qualities Carpenter is alluding to, so… Yes, if he wanted Ghosts of Mars to be interpreted as “intended”, he really should have made it more obviously comedic and “in on the joke”.
As it stands, though, Ghosts of Mars doesn’t work on any level, and certainly not on the one he says he conceived. He’s made movies before that carry a strong comedic or parodic element – Dark Star, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live! – and they’re among his best pictures. But he also made Escape from L.A. which stumbles in its humour and execution as often, or more often, than it lands. This is very much of that similar late period “can’t be bothered, would rather play video games”, giving-a-shrug approach.
If Carpenter had seriously intended to pull off the picture as stated, he needed to pull his finger out and surround himself with the necessary cast and crew. It’s been suggested – Wikipedia again but noting the source is unsubstantiated – that Ghosts of Mars was originally Escape from Mars, a third outing for Snake Plissken. That’s entirely believable, based on a premise revolving around – before getting side tracked by the titular ghosts – Ice Cube’s convict Desolation Williams, at very least a Plissken clone.
But this is exactly it. Kurt Russell brought a self-aware Clint-esque swagger to Plissken (as he did a John Wayne-wannabe quality to Jack Burton). Ice Cube has presence, but he isn’t much of an actor. He glowers with the best of them, but the role needed deadpan. Which the Stath, originally cast, can provide in abundance (see Spy for the best example). The Stath is no Olivier either, but he is good at deadpan. Yet he has to make do with a supporting part as a sexually over-compensating sergeant (this was only his fourth movie role, but he’s still more engaging than most of the performers here, with the possible exception of Joanna Cassidy).
There are elements that might lead one to think Carpenter’s professed intent is plausible – I don’t think there’s any way you can have a flashback within a flashback within a flashback and not be purposefully taking the piss – but the entire production reeks of “don’t care”. Top of the list, as ever, is cinematographer Gary B Kibbe, who makes the movie utterly flat and lifeless. If there isn’t a shred of atmosphere or depth to Ghosts of Mars, it most certainly isn’t because Carpenter was self-consciously trying to make it look that way; it’s because that’s how Village of the Damned and Escape to L.A. and Vampires look (ironically, his first couple of low-budget team-ups with Kibbe don’t fare quite as badly, perhaps because the actual scrappiness works to their advantage).
I don’t know, though; if Carpenter equates campy with dramatically inert and utterly stilted in performance and staging, then Ghosts of Mars is campy. But campy for me usually requires a bit of flair somewhere in the mix, even if one or other element falls down elsewhere. Either stylistically or in terms of performance, it should furnish something extra. Ghosts of Mars’ only real flourish is the look of main villain Big Daddy Mars, but the very fact of dressing a stuntman (Richard Cetrone) as a member of KISS with a piercing fetish tells you all you need to know about how much fun that part of it is.
There’s also Natasha Henstridge as the lead, who epitomises the production’s vanilla lack of energy; she’s certainly not aware of the camp side. Cassidy’s good as the doctor who unleashed the beast, but possibly too much so for the limitations of the production.
No doubt intended to reflect his self-mutilating antagonists’ frenzied fervour, Carpenter teamed with a number of heavy-metal bands on the soundtrack, which really only serves to underline the sense of amateurishness – or in-on-the-joke campery? – pervading the movie; if you set up incredibly lethargic action sequences and flood them with wall-to-wall metal, you can only really be interpreted as trying to make up for a lack. Or, alternatively, revelling in a really shoddy production.
The thing of it is, for all that I’ve spent half-a-dozen paragraphs doing Ghosts of Mars down, it’s still more watchable than something like Village of the Damned or Vampires. The skeleton of Carpenter’s siege movie format – Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing, Prince of Darkness – does a lot of heavy lifting, and while this one is never remotely good, it doesn’t entirely make me want to give up the ghost (of Mars).
I’ll caveat that by saying the first (and only) time I’d watched it previously, I found the movie utterly tedious, so perhaps I was in a relatively receptive mood this time. But there are more than enough ingredients on paper for Ghosts of Mars to have made a decent little B-movie. Which means it’s probably for the best that it didn’t end up as the third Snake Plissken pic, as no level of inflated budget would have encouraged Carpenter to care sufficiently about what he was making by this point.