The Film: 3/5
When Kate (Catherine Hickland), the daughter of one of his town’s wealthiest citizens, unexpectedly goes missing, young deputy sheriff Langley (Franc Luz) is assigned to track her down. All he manages to find is her beautiful red Mercedes that has been reduced to a mangled husk and a mysterious man in black riding atop a mighty horse who destroys his police vehicle and leaves him stranded somewhere in the desert. In his travels to return to civilization, Langley stumbles across the ramshackle ruins of an old West town. Though initially appearing to be empty, he encounters spectral visions of the townspeople who once occupied its streets and wooden buildings in the 19th century. Langley soon comes to realize that Kate is being held prisoner by Devlin (Jimmie F. Skaggs), a vicious and merciless outlaw who has ruled over the town like a brutal tyrant in the century since he murdered its previous sheriff Harper (Blake Conway). Harper vowed that his soul and those of the townspeople would not rest in peace until Devlin was destroyed once and for all, and he has chosen Langley as the successor who must confront the outlaw and his sadistic goons in a final, bloody battle on the dusty streets of this ghost town.
It has always been difficult to get a genre hybrid right, none more so than horror westerns. Merging horror with comedy or science fiction might probably easier, but the wide open landscapes and lawless desert outposts of an uncivilized America in the early stages of becoming a true united nation provide a perfect backdrop against which unspeakable evil can be unleashed. From the D-level dregs of Billy the Kid Versus Dracula to the stop-motion fantasy of The Valley of Gwangi, from the foul-mouthed oaters of Joe R. Lansdale to Kathryn Bigelow’s modern-day masterpiece Near Dark, there will never cease to be a desire to explore the terrors that roam seen and unseen across the sparse, imposing vistas of the American West.
Ghost Town, a 1988 release from the once mighty B-movie masters at Empire Pictures, falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. A difficult and embattled production even for a film made under the watch of Charles Band, Ghost Town had originally been conceived as a directing vehicle for David Schmoeller, the former student of Alejandro Jodorowsky who had previously made the creepy thrillers Tourist Trap and Crawlspace for Band. The story belonged to Schmoeller but Duke Sandefur (1989’s The Phantom of the Opera) was hired to flesh out his ideas into a screenplay, and the directing reigns were ultimately handed to newbie Richard Governor. Two weeks before filming wrapped, Governor reportedly walked off the production due to the constant changes being made to the script, and cinematographer Mac Ahlberg (a longtime Empire vet who also shot Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator and From Beyond as well as Zone Troopers and Renny Harlin’s Prison for the studio) was tasked with seeing Ghost Town through to the conclusion of principal photography.
The film’s problems didn’t end there. Harvey R. Cohen, a well-known Hollywood composer and orchestrator who had worked on Team America: World Police and Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong among others, had originally been hired to create a music score for Ghost Town. Unfortunately for Cohen, all but three of the cues he had composed for the soundtrack were junked during post-production and replaced with tracks from other Empire productions. That would explain why the music sounds more like Richard Band’s work for the studio at times, and I’m pretty sure I caught a bit of Fuzzbee Morse’s score from Ghoulies II during a love scene. This would also certainly verify that the cut of Ghost Town that was released briefly to theaters and later on home video was essentially an unfinished workprint, temp score and all. Empire would be finished by the early 90’s, leaving their pulpy sci-fi adventure Robot Jox to be distributed theatrically by another studio and Band to resurrect his filmmaking ambitions as the head of Full Moon Entertainment (still going strong, in a manner of speaking, to this day).
In spite of its problematic production and lukewarm reception from even the most devoted genre aficionados, Ghost Town still remains a solid, albeit derivative 85 minutes – including credits – of bloody B-movie mayhem. What the film lacks in fright and gore it makes up for with sharply-executed action scenes, gritty atmosphere that is highly evocative of the finest westerns Hollywood ever produced, and a memorable central monster in the form of Jimmie F. Skaggs’ darkly charismatic outlaw Devlin. The film was shot on location at Arizona’s Old Tucson movie studio and theme park that had previously played host to such classic westerns as the original 3:10 to Yuma, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Tombstone among many others. Scenes in non-westerns like Death Wish and the 1976 remake of A Star Is Born were also filmed at Old Tucson, so the place has a rich cinematic history that makes it ideal to play the town out of time where most of the action of Ghost Town is set. The shootouts and fisticuffs achieve a rough-and-tumble quality due to the excellent stunt work supervised by none other than Kane Hodder.
Ahlberg’s cinematography gives Ghost Town the look of one of the more downbeat westerns of the 1970’s, which is strange given that the titular desert hamlet houses the kind of timeworn character archetypes you might find in either a sunnier John Wayne outing or an episode of Gunsmoke. You have the moralistic sheriff, the flirtatious barmaid (Penelope Windlust), the blacksmith looking to avoid confrontation (Zitto Kazann), the token blind man with a mysterious ability to see much better than those blessed with sight (Bruce Glover), and the sneeringly hateful villain dressed in dark tones. This is clearly an old-fashioned tale of the white hats versus the black hats, with no grey area to be found. Franc Luz (Don Juan DeMarco) is in fine form as the strong and capable hero deputy Langley, a decent man with a code of honor and a respect for the law. No matter how strange things get in the story, Langley never forgets to do his job and find the missing woman. He’s given a sweet love story on the side with a beautiful local woman (Laura Schaefer) that works well despite not being given enough development and doesn’t detract from the A-story.
But it’s the late Skaggs who steals his every scene as the fearsome, decaying Devlin. A truly despicable creep with a mangled face to match his poor excuse for a soul, Devlin is one of the rare 80’s horror movie villains who speaks with eloquence, cackles with diabolical malice, and has the power to haunt your nightmares even after you enter adulthood. The Arkansas-born Ohio native Skaggs was a consummate working character in film and television literally until the day he died, and six years after making his mark on Ghost Town he returned to work for Charles Band in both the 1994 sci-fi western Oblivion and its 1996 sequel Backlash. He invests Devlin with a frightening presence and a rasping voice that might send a chill down your spine every time the character speaks. The black-clad baddie is truly the standout of Ghost Town, a deviant delight who refuses to become a one-note figure of comedy in the manner of Freddy Krueger as New Line Cinema insisted on pumping out Nightmare on Elm Street sequels on a regular basis
Scream Factory presents Ghost Town in a fine 1080p high-definition transfer framed in the 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio that was likely sourced from a print remastered by the film’s current owner MGM. The image quality isn’t strong, but it is pretty consistent and a definite improvement over New World Home Video’s full frame VHS tranfer from the late 80’s. Grain content is strong but balanced, as is the color timing. Permanent print damage appears to be non-existent. This is about as good as one can hope for with an HD upgrade of an Empire Pictures release. The movie was released theatrically with an Ultra Stereo soundtrack and the English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Stereo track provided by Scream replicates that original sound mix with commendable results. Dialogue can be heard clearly, the music score comes through at a terrific volume without creating distortion, and none of the elements of the complete mix drown each other out. English subtitles have also been included.
Scream Factory has provided Ghost Town with absolutely no bonus features. Seriously. They didn’t even include the original theatrical trailer.
Only the hardcore fans are going to be interested in Ghost Town’s Blu-ray debut, with its decent high-definition transfer and a troubling lack of supplements making it worth a rental at best. But if you’re in the mood for a better-than-average mash-up of supernatural horror and gritty western, this underrated entry from the dying days of Empire Pictures should fit the bill nicely.