John Carpenter is universally regarded as one of the true ”masters of horror”, but he hasn’t always been held in the highest regard by fans and critics alike. There once was a time where the classic, The Thing (1982), was critically panned; but throughout the years it’s grown to become one of the most beloved horror films of all time and you’d be hard pressed to find many who don’t consider it a masterpiece. By no means has his career been a stranger to negative press, but as time has progressed, most of his movies have garnered appreciation and love. They Live (1988) has gone on to become a cult classic with poignant social commentary considered ahead of its time; In The Mouth of Madness (1994) was initially met with scorn, but is now considered one of the most underrated entries of his entire filmography, and it doesn’t end there. The point I’m making is: Much of Carpenter’s movies are like fine wines, more appreciated in hindsight than on first impression. But that doesn’t seem to be the case for Ghosts of Mars (2001); a movie that was such a commercial and critical flop that it effectively killed the little directorial enthusiasm he had left and sent him into semi-retirement, only to resurface in 2010 to helm the generic, but competent chiller, The Ward. I have no doubt in my mind that was more about that money than getting his feet wet again after a long vacation. But who can blame him? After a 30 year career, with the majority spent without an instant hit, who would want to rush back in if they didn’t have an overwhelming desire to create? That being said, Ghosts of Mars was unfairly maligned, and despite the negative feedback, is still a feature Carpenter can be proud of. It might be a flawed movie, but it’s also a fun one, with an original concept that makes for some fine popcorn entertainment.
Ghosts of Mars followed Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Prince of Darkness (1987) as the final installment of his ”siege” trilogy, a brothers in arms concept inspired by the westerns Carpenter grew up aspiring to make; set on Mars in 2176 AD, it follows a group of commandos sent to bring a dangerous criminal to trial, only to encounter an uprising of ancient Martian ghosts who want to slaughter the living inhabitants on the planet and reclaim it as their own.
Make no mistake about it: Ghosts of Mars is a B movie in every sense, from cast to set pieces to dialogue and performances. The cast comprised of an up and coming Jason Statham, Ice Cube, Pam Grier and Natasha Henstridge, so marketable talent it had not; but B movies with B list actors has been a norm for Carpenter throughout his career, and with those ethos he managed to conjure up a few modest financial hits. So what made Ghosts of Mars such an impotent thrust on the box office that was lampooned by everyone and their grandmother this side of the Red Planet?
The biggest criticisms towards Ghosts of Mars are the set designs, dialogue and performances from the actors. Although no stranger to the corny side of cinema, this was considered to be an all time low for Carpenter. Like I said earlier, this is a B movie in every sense of the word and the criticisms are true to an extent; but, for me, that’s what makes it so much fun. By no means is Ghosts of Mars a bad movie, nor is it a great one; but it has the charm of modest budget sci-fi films from the 80’s, and considering the budget it was made on, the set pieces are impressive.
However, those criticis failed to acknowledge the positives: As a horror film it works; full of tension, atmosphere and scary looking creatures, it ranks among some of his finest work. Furthermore, like most of his movies, it’s not without its deep rooted themes and playfully explores the battle between the sexes, as well as incorporates elements of the 1974 movie Zulu; so much so that the creature designs resembled African tribal warriors.
Thankfully, over the years the Carpenter faithful have given this movie the respect it deserves, but one can’t help but feel it deserves more. It keeps its tongue firmly planted in its cheek and is meant as nothing more than mindless entertainment. In those regards, it succeeds triumphantly and in this day and age I’d like to see more movies with this level of imagination. It’s a shame we lost Carpenter to the directors retirement home as a result, but if history is any indication its audience will keep growing over time as it did with most of his films.