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When I look back on some of my favorite Horror/Thriller movies, movies like HALLOWEEN, THE THING, HALLOWEEN III: Season of the Witch*, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, CHRISTINE, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, I cannot escape the conclusion (which you had damn well better have reached yerself by now) that John Carpenter is one of my all time favorite Horror movie directors.
It's a long accepted standard among creators, regardless of their art, that they reach a point where their most sincere fans also think that they are past their prime.
This is entirely possible. Many a writer, painter, director, what have you, runs through their body of creation and finds themselves, at the end of the day, doing nothing more than creating a parody of their own work. Wes Craven certainly did it with his SCREAM series of movies. David Cronenberg has been running retreads of his former genius at a time when he can finally afford actors fine enough to pull off his best. The hard part is, this triumverate I mention all hit their peak in the early nineteen eighties, and lit a torch that few seem capable of carrying today.
There are those, of course, who would gloat over the crap that is GHOSTS OF MARS. But not me. I've been a fan too long to do more than sadly shake my head.
Let's start off with the good stuff about this movie first.
Officer Melanie Bradford (Natasha Henstridge: SPECIES, SPECIES II) is a policewoman in the near future where the society of Mars is run by women - and lesbian women at that. Why? Who knows? The planet was colonized by NOW or something? It's never made clear.
Whatever happens in this movie, you know that Melanie is going to live because she is telling the story to a tribunal after the fact. All the movie is a flashback. There are also flashbacks in this flashback and though there were times when I was sure I lost count, there was at least one case of a flashback within a flashback, within a flashback.
Melanie has taken a train (no spaceships in this flick about Mars. A plus already!) from the first city on Mars to a teeny mining outpost to bring to justice the only human bad guy in the whole flick.
Ice Cube (ANACONDA) plays Desolation Williams, an alleged mass murderer. He is so bad that he is going to be taken off-planet for his crimes, THAT'S how bad he is!
When the train gets to "The Shining City", the whole place is deserted, save for a dog or something that runs past the doors of the train just as they open.
Long story short, the populace have been infected by varmints who posses human bodies and turn them all into Goths with a bent on speaking in tongues and having enough pierced skin and flesh branding to make Steve Haworth chuckle.
Up to this point, everything about this flick shouts "Shitkicker!". There should be cowboys, bandits, ornery varmints, and stagecoaches.
Instead we are on Mars in a pioneer town built by folks who are used to building base housing. Terraforming - of a sort is going on, since folks can step outside, sans environment suits, without going pop. They just need the occasional suck off an oxygen tube to keep them going.
So anywho, our Sheriff and her posse comes to town and knit their collective brows. The dang ol' town is deserted by cracky! Kinda spooky, if you know what I mean. And its quiet! Too quiet!
Doesn't mean that the only two heterosexuals can't get some nookie going on. If only that dang ol' Sheriff Melanie wasn't so heavy handed about rank and file stuff. That and doing her job.
After a throat slash and a decapitation, Merry Mishaps ensue.
Sounds disjointed, doesn't it? You ain't kidding.
It's derivitive as hell without anything interesting going on.
As far as story telling technique is concerned, John co-wrote this tale with Larry Sulkis, who produced the commercials for Carpenter's THEY LIVE back in 1988. Larry thinks highly of John as many of us do and has gone on record as saying that Carpenter, for all of his success and stature, is a really decent guy to work with.
Cool for John.
But there were also a number of things in this flick that could have been done better. For example, the varmints what used to be human are now possessed by THE GHOSTS OF MARS. Fine and dandy, but why do they seem to be SO into a 20th century Western Culture alienated fashion sense? It looks cool, I guess. In a funky tinsel-town kinda groove.
But these are intelligent varmints, right? Couldn't they at least SHOW some intelligence instead of just running around shouting and waving their spears and throwing saw blades? This is about 70 percent of the movie right?
I mean, Okay! We get it! The natives are mighty damn restless!
Martial Arts fighter and stuntman/actor Richard Cetrone, who plays Big Daddy Mars (though he is never called that by name) looks mighty spiffy in his HELLRAISER duds, but never does anything that makes him stand out from his cronies other than, well, look spiffier than they.
I grant you, such scenes worked in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, but those street denizens weren't near as scary as the bad guys who actually had a plan: and their scenes were very brief. Snake made short shrift of them yokels because they couldn't think their way out of a paper sack.
There are great decapitations though. Zing! Zoom! When them blades go flying through the air, some heads are gonna roll!
I am also keenly aware of John Carpenter's track record. Throughout his long career the man has made movies that bombed at the box-office and soared in home video. THE THING was such a victim, CHRISTINE was another. I could care less about THE FOG but I have friends who love it. I hated IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS but our reviewer, Paul Wargelin swears by it. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA just cracks me up and I watch it everytime I happen to see it on TV - EVEN THOUGH I own the freaking DVD!
So what can I say? When I love a John Carpenter movie its an immediate thing. I learned long ago never to take a first date to a John Carpenter movie. Let her get to know you better before she hears you cackling in the dark theater as you watch spider legs grow out of a decapitated head.
One thing I know about John for sure and that is this: The man is so damn good to his fans. At the San Diego World ComicCon, I stood behind John to move people along who might hassle him or take too much of his time. I was sent there by my boss. John didn't need me there. He probably didn't want me there. Frail little John was more than happy to autograph everything every fan brought up to be signed. People brought their children to him so they could take photos of baby and John. Imagine your parents having a photo of you, as a baby, being held by Alfred Hitchcock or Stephen King.
Actress Joanna Cassidy (BLADE RUNNER) was there too as was Richard Cetrone in full Big Daddy Mars get-up. He was amazed and even shy about the hundreds and hundreds of fans that filled the massive room, all to get an autograph from John and tell him just how much they loved his work. John talked to them, took time with them, thanked them for all they had done for him. I was amazed at both his humility and his affection for these people.
Maybe what some critics say is true, John Carpenter may be past his prime as both a director and a storyteller; he should have retired long ago. But though I can't give GHOSTS OF MARS more than two Shriek Girls, my respect for John is higher than ever. Regardless of his films, he never tries to insult his audience.
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