In almost every way, Ghosts of Mars registers as a “lesser” entry from John Carpenter. The picture is essentially an amalgamation (die hards would use the word “distillation” but that’s giving the movie a bit too much credit) of a large handful of the director’s movies. I use “amalgamation” rather than “distillation” because Ghosts of Mars is very much a smorgasbord, an exercise in B-movie excess that sees Carpenter throwing everything at it and seeing what sticks. Most of it does. Critically derided upon its release, Ghosts of Mars basically stands as a Planet Terror, Grindhouse-type picture six years before the Rodriguez/Tarantino double-bill hit theaters. But Terror was an homage film, a pastiche. Ghosts of Mars comes from the director Rodriguez was idolizing and homaging.
And it’s clear the original sci-fi/horror maestro was having a blast here. Set on a 90%+ terraformed Mars, the human race’s power infrastructure is now matriarchal, one of the few political springboards Ghosts jumps off of on its way to action/horror silliness. A police squad (led by Pam Grier’s captain) is dispatched to a mining town to bring in a high profile criminal (his name, believe it or not, is Desolation Williams and he’s played by Ice Cube). Science fiction meets the traditional western – the mining town pillaging the world brings to mind Manifest Destiny, and the script (which Carpenter co-wrote) has a few strands of dialogue that veer off inexplicably into the political (“It’s not their planet anymore,” Natasha Henstridge’s hard nosed Lieutenant declares at one point). The “their” she is referring to is a huge group of the titular ghosts, who were disturbed from their rest as the miners toiled, possessing many of the workers and slaughtering dozens more.
Ghosts of Mars is exciting on a cinematic level, too, and more than fulfills its plethora of genre demands. The red-tinged landscape is suitably hostile for the squad, and the possessed cabal’s look is insane and deranged and looks as though it has been pulled right from George Miller’s Mad Max series. After an atmospheric and spooky build-up (punctuated by various bits of intentional, and unintentional, hilarity) the midnight madness kicks in. Carpenter proves himself ever the master behind the action – he employs wipes and transitions that push the action forward and disorient time for us viewers just as the ghosts possess their victims (often shown in a hazy red POV handheld shot). Ultimately, Ghosts is formally exciting midnight B-movie shlock. The big, (literally) explosive action sequences are superbly choreographed and filmed, accompanied by Carpenter’s heavy metal meets synthesizer musical score (which some despise, but I loved). Ghosts of Mars is pulse pounding silly fun, and if anything serves as a vehicle for a snarling Ice Cube shouting, “Come on you mindless mother f***ckers,” which is worth the price of admission. See it in October.