Ghost (1990)


While there aren't too many tales of studio interference when it come to Ghost, it was an unlikely mix.  Director Jerry Zucker was one of the team responsible for Airplane! and The Naked Gun, while Patrick Swayze was a bankable action star.  Demi Moore was an up-and-coming young actress who had starred in some romance and drama films, while Whoopi Goldberg was a comedian who had shown promise as a dramatic actor in The Color Purple before starring in a number of flops.  

To add a bit of strangeness Zucker was working directly with writer Bruce Joel Rubin.  Prior to Ghost he had been responsible for Brainstorm, which, though interesting, was known more for being Natalie Wood's last film.  The film he did after that was Deadly Friend, directed by Wes Craven and best known for Kristy Swanson smashing Anne Ramsey's head with a basketball.  While nothing in this disparate amalgamation of talents really speaks of disaster it also doesn't foretell a supernatural romance/comedy becoming the biggest movie of 1990 as well as one of the most profitable of the entire decade.

Sam Wheat (Swayze) and his girlfriend Molly Jensen (Moore) have just moved into a New York loft.  She is an up-and-coming artist while he has a lucrative job at a bank along with their best friend Carl Bruner (Tony Goldwyn).  Everything seems to be going right for them, which naturally is making Sam nervous.  Turns out he has a right to be since he is killed by a mugger (Rick Aviles) while the two are walking home from seeing Macbeth one night.

While Molly grieves for him Sam tries to get used to being dead and the strange physics that come with it.  After seeing the man that killed him enter their apartment one day while Molly is away, Sam pursues the man back to his home and begins to realize that his murder may not have been random.  Wanting to find out who is responsible, and wanting to protect Molly, Sam by chance goes into a storefront psychic shop owned by Oda Mae Brown (Goldberg).  While she is an obvious fake, somehow she is able to hear Sam, and through her he begins to try to help keep Molly safe while being able to finally say goodbye to her. 

Despite his previous two credits before this being Road House and Next of Kin, Patrick Swayze always hinted at having talents beyond playing just a typical action hero.  For him it was one of a number of hit films he had in the late 1980s and early 1990s that made him a memorable star despite the fact that he made a lot of bad choices when it came to roles afterward.  This pretty much revived Whoopi Goldberg's movie career; although she had a recurring role as Guinan on the series Star Trek: The Next Generation, attempts with movies like Jumpin' Jack Flash had failed miserably, but Ghost proved her to be a viable comedic talent, leading to her own hit film, Sister Act.  Demi Moore became one of the biggest female stars of the first half of the 1990s due to this, having a string of hits until her off-screen drama became more well-known than the roles she was getting.  As for Zucker, it made him a ton of money as well, even though he has only directed two movies afterward, and both of them failures. 

I go through all of that because, although I wouldn't say Ghost is forgotten, it's popularity today doesn't reflect how big the movie was and how culturally significant it was for the time.  Ghost made it clear that blending film genres was a key for success, something that studios had been scared of before, as anything that couldn't be immediately pigeonholed just wasn't promoted in any significant way and was doomed to fail.  The cast in this was just too big to let that happen, so the chance was taken and it worked.  And, honestly, it still works.  The story does have its cheese in places and is blatantly emotionally manipulative, but every element works.  Moore is definitely the weak link, but Swayze and Goldberg, and even Tony Goldwyn, carry the movie easily and make up for her limitations.  

While the majority of the movie is largely a romantic murder mystery with a bit of comedy thrown in, the horror element is more than an afterthought.  A lot of thought and imagination went into the world of the ghosts themselves, from finding themselves being physically affected by people walking through them and partially absorbing elements of solid objects, to the screaming shadows that come to claim the souls of those that are not headed through the tunnel of light that shows up for most people.  A subway ghost played Vincent Schiavelli that mentors Sam in how to manipulate objects also shows that, at least while in a state of limbo, problems that affected one while living don't necessarily disappear when dead. 

It's a bit more world building than one would expect considering the main point is Sam figuring out who murdered him so that he can leave this world, but we still see much of the afterworld physics of Ghost show up in movies like The Frighteners and the current UK comedy (and it's American adaptation), Ghosts.  Some of the special effects may look old-fashioned, particularly the rotoscoping on the shadows, but I still find that they do their job after all these years.  I also find that the movie, despite the parodies and such, is still quite fresh after all this time.  Zucker shows creativeness as a director with a number of his shots, the bad guys get their comeuppance and, unlike a number of movies these days, it ends when it is supposed to.  

Despite all this, and despite how big it was as well as being one of those movies my generation doesn't have to explain to people as being from "a different time," Ghost is unfairly forgotten.  Maybe it would be better remembered if there had been a "Ghost Universe" with 20 sequels and half a dozen spinoffs and a ton of merchandising, but Zucker and Bruce Joel Rubin decided, and wisely in my opinion, that the story was told and there was no reason to go back for diminishing returns.  The movie did win the Oscar for best original screenplay, and Goldberg became only the second black actress to win an Academy Award for best supporting actor.  It is arguably Swayze's best performance and, to my surprise, I found myself enjoying it the same as I did over 30 years ago when I saw it for the first time. 

Ghost (1990)
Time: 127 minutes
Starring: Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg, Tony Goldwyn, Rick Aviles
Director: Jerry Zucker



 

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