Michael Jackson's "Ghosts" (1997) (part 1 of 3)
NOTE: Special thanks to Rori “Sapphire” Stephens, for letting me expand upon her Reader Review of Michael Jackson’s “Ghosts”, posted in the forums two years ago, and turn it into this extended review. I’ll be damned if isn’t Halloween already. Why do holidays always sneak up on me? I promise, next year, I’ll get back to my Halloween tradition of looking at the very worst horror films ever made, like Night of Horror and Snuff. Believe me, I’ve seen some horror movies that make both of those films look like The Shining.
So, much like last Christmas, I’m resorting to a review of something easily downloadable. My apologies in advance for the crappiness of the screen captures. I had to make due with a poor quality MPEG, because Amazon said it would take 4 to 6 weeks to send me the VHS. I’m assuming this is because they have to send an intern on a hike out into the remote deserts of New Mexico, where surely all copies of Michael Jackson’s “Ghosts” are buried in a landfill and paved over with concrete.
The Agony Booth has successfully plundered the Michael Jackson goldmine of humor many times before, most notably for Rori’s guest review of Moonwalker. And frankly, that’s because the man has turned himself into a walking setup for every punch line we can dream up.
Now that it’s finally my turn to lay into Michael in an in-depth way, the first thing I’d like to get off my chest is that, as good as Thriller and Bad were as pop albums, there’s no competition in my mind for Michael’s greatest accomplishment: Off the Wall. “Rock with You” and “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough” and “She’s Out of My Life” are all great songs and big hits, but there a lot of lesser-known gems on the album, like “Working Day and Night”, “Get on the Floor”, and the Paul McCartney-penned “Girlfriend”. If Michael had retired after recording this album, everybody would still be saying he had an amazing career.
But of course, he went on to record the mega-blockbuster Thriller, currently the second-biggest selling album of all time (to answer the obvious question: The Eagles, Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975). Yes, really). And not long after the record-breaking success of Thriller, the world learned the recipe for pop star disaster: One, have a father who was (by all accounts) domineering and physically abusive. Two, get thrust into superstardom at the age of 11. Three, get really rich, really fast.
Michael Jackson’s biggest problem is not so much that he has issues. We all do. But in Michael’s case, he got too famous and too rich for anyone to smack him upside the head and make him go to therapy. And so his minor eccentricities grew exponentially over the years. After all the wealth and fame and Pepsi pyrotechnic accidents, he withdrew from society and reality, becoming a perpetual pre-adolescent locked away in his own non-stop freak show.
Despite the fact that Michael created his own freakish image (coming up with the “Whacko Jacko” label himself), every album he’s released in the last fifteen years has been a tirade against his (supposed) persecution: By the media, by the public at large, and most of all, by district attorneys. It all started with “Leave Me Alone” from Bad, and continued through the HIStory tracks “Scream” and “D.S.”, the latter being a secretly-coded attack song against California prosecutor Thomas Sneddon. (That is, if you consider the name “Dom S. Sheldon” to be secret code.)
Part of this decade-long tirade was the short film Ghosts, a horror-movie homage and a blatant allegory about how the public just doesn’t understand Mikey’s creepy behavior. It was actually four or so years in the making. The concept was dreamt up by Michael and author Stephen King back in 1993 as the video for “Is It Scary?”, a song originally meant for the Addams Family Values soundtrack. (Which is why there’s a joke about Michael’s “Heal the World” charity in that film.)
Unfortunately, a slight problem with touching young boys—or the allegations of same—erupted that year, putting the film on the back burner. Later, after Michael had settled with his first accuser out of court, he unwisely resurrected this project, transforming it into even more of a screed against the evil, judgmental public.
Back in ’93, when Michael seemed merely eccentric in a Howard Hughes kind of way, “Ghosts” probably would have played better, or at least not utterly horrifying. But given what he’s been accused of since then, it’s hard to sympathize with him in this video. After all, we learn his character is inviting young boys to his hideaway, and exacting promises from them to keep quiet about what goes on there. Amazingly, this whole “film” is all about why sane adults should not freak out about this.
According to the making-of documentary that VH1 used to run about this film, Michael’s main objective with “Ghosts” was to top “Thriller”, which a lot of people consider to be the greatest music video ever made. I think it’s safe to say he fell somewhat short of that goal.
Although the concept remained pretty much the same in the finished project as it was back in ’93, I suspect it wasn’t originally meant to be so elaborate and lengthy. There were no plans for the ’93 project to play in theatres, for example, and the finished video is built around three songs instead of one. (Besides “Is It Scary?”, the film includes the songs “2 Bad”, and logically enough, “Ghosts”.) Michael even got famed special effects wizard Stan Winston to direct.
Despite all the hoopla, the film only played a one-week engagement in the US. And only in Los Angeles, where it was attached to Thinner, another Stephen King-related project about a freakishly skinny guy, which used some of the same behind-the-camera crew. I often wonder why “Ghosts” was kept out of the US until 2001, especially considering the success of Michael’s Blood on the Dance Floor remix album probably depended on it (all of its songs are on that album).
The “film” opens on a black and white shot of a spoooo-ooooky castle! I for one hope Count Chocula didn’t feel too put out by the film crew. We see a moonlit sky, and thick clouds overhead, and a fog-enshrouded graveyard out front. And if you guessed there’s a flash of lightning in the first few seconds, you are not alone. Three out of four people watching this predicted that, and the fourth one is a moron.
A blazing torch flashes briefly through our field of view. Cut to a raven cawing away, and it turns out the bird is perched on a sign that says “Welcome to Normal Valley”, ha ha. Which is so very ironic because behind this sign is a desolate wasteland of dry brush and dead trees. Do you get it? Oh, and I believe Normal Valley is about 20 miles north of Uncanny Valley, which is really a disturbing place to be.
Suddenly, a torch-wielding mob appears, chattering angrily amongst themselves. Where is it that angry mobs get torches these days? Do they all make a pit-stop at the local Lowe’s to pick up kerosene and walking sticks on their way to the outskirts of town? Although, in a city that has a big spooo-oooky castle, I guess it’s just good business sense to stock big torches at the local Wal-Mart.
They approach the castle, and a lightning flash reveals the plaque outside, which in turn reveals that the name of the castle is… “Someplace Else”. Ooooh! Scary! It’s not this place! It’s someplace else! Actually, that is sort of scary, because it’s obviously meant as a transparent reference to Neverland Ranch. A running theme will be that Michael’s real-life antics are far scarier than anything in the film, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.
Spielbergian orchestration plays as the angry mob gets to the front gate. Now, unlike “Thriller”, which was an homage to ’50s drive-in movies, “Ghosts” is more of a tribute to the Universal horror films of the ’30s and ’40s. Despite this, everyone in the mob is wearing the standard apparel of suburban residents, circa 1997.
A small boy in the mob pipes up: “Why don’t we just leave him alone?” Look, kid, the best time to be asking that question was before they rounded everybody up and lit the torches. A redheaded kid adds, “He hasn’t hurt anybody! Can’t we just go?”
They seem to be addressing a man in the center of the mob, a large, bulky, middle-aged white guy in a business suit and horn-rimmed glasses. There’s something extremely unsettling about this guy, but I can’t… quite… put my finger on it.
The redheaded kid’s older brother smacks him over the head. He says a line that, in normal situations, would appear to be just clichéd sibling rivalry banter. But in this context, it becomes possibly the most disturbing line of the whole film: “It’s your fault, jerk! Just couldn’t keep your mouth shut!” Wow. Now there’s a line that plays a lot differently than how it was originally intended. Although, who knows? Maybe that is how it was intended. I mean, I’m pretty sure those are the exact words Michael wished he could say to the first kid who accused him of molestation.
The redheaded kids’ mom, standing right behind them, smacks Older Brother in turn. She yells, “He did the right thing!”
Middle-Aged Guy, completely not listening, says, “He’s a weirdo! There’s no place in this town for weirdoes!” Referring to, I presume, the tenant of “Someplace Else”. But as he speaks, it suddenly becomes clear what’s so unsettling about this guy: He speaks with a thin, effeminate voice that completely clashes with his bulky exterior. Yep, you guessed it: Middle-Aged Guy is actually Michael Jackson himself, currently under tons of latex and makeup, playing his own imaginary adversary. (And just in case you’re not able to figure this out on your own, the closing credits will show extended footage of Michael getting the makeup applied.)
And in this supposedly “scary” film, Michael playing a fat white guy is about the most frightening part of it. Well, besides all the repressed rage against kids who accused him of sexual abuse. Not that Fat White Guy isn’t a part of that; Some have speculated this character is yet another thinly-veiled swipe at DA Sneddon.
In fact, the centerpiece of the whole film is Michael’s multiple roles. The credits claim he plays five characters, but that’s an exaggeration—It’s actually just variations on two characters. More on that later, but rest assured he won’t erase memories of Peter Sellers’ similar efforts anytime soon.
After a couple more thunderclaps and lightning flashes, the castle gate swings open by itself. The token Spooked Black Guy stutters, “That-that ain’t a good sign!” Strange how a film starring Michael Jackson can have a Token Black Guy, isn’t it? And the Token Black Guy, it seems, is played by Mos Def, one of a select few rappers who’s been able to cross over into acting without embarrassing himself. Well, he does embarrass himself here, but that’s a reflection on the movie, not the abilities of Mr. Def.
Middle-Aged Guy leads them forward into the castle. Another large, arched doorway automatically opens for them. The younger of the two redheaded kids says it’s just like “last time” and blames this on “the ghost!” (Making no sense, given what we see later—there’s no “the ghost”, but dozens of them.) This comment earns him another smack across the head from Older Brother, and in turn, it earns Older Brother another smack across the head from Mom. I know this seems like unnecessary slapstick (Hah! Slapstick! I kill me, worse than ALF!), but wait for the punch line on this one, okay? It’s not just random child abuse. Though I’m sure Michael would be in favor of that, too.
And then, another Suburban Mom in the crowd tells her son (wow, lots of families at this lynching—hope they packed a picnic lunch) that there’s no such thing as ghosts. But the kid insists ghosts are real. White Middle-Aged Michael (wait, isn’t all that redundant?) spits out that Suburban Mom is right, and he’s “gonna prove it to ya, kid!” And hearing this weird sorta-lisp and high-pitched, cartoonish voice coming out of a huge white guy is still the only disturbing thing going on at all.
Okay, so the dialogue never gives Michael’s fat white alter ego a name, or explains who he is, but the closing credits refer to him as “The Mayor”. So for the sake of simplicity, I’m taking that name and running with it. Strangely, the Mayor bears an eerie resemblance to Roger Ebert, making this the third film reviewed on this site to feature a Mayor Ebert.