31 Days of Gore: Ghost Town (1988)

It’s October. Time to talk horror. This year I’m reviewing a different horror movie each day of the month.

A lot of the movies on my list this month were movies I’ve been meaning to see for years. The rest of them were chosen solely on the appeal of their cover art and official summaries. I enjoy seeing these movies on Blu-Ray far too much to remain devoted to VHS, but I actually miss those childhood trips to the video store. Short of reading great things about a horror movie in Fangoria, it was a crapshoot every time you brought home one of those translucent white cases with a tape inside, but the thrill was in the hunt. That’s kind of what this feature is about for me: going into aging horror movies blind.

I had no idea what to expect from Ghost Town, but I’m a sucker for desert settings. Highway to Hell, Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat, Tremors, Full Moon’s Oblivion—these are all movies I enjoyed tremendously when I was a kid, but with the exception of Tremors and parts of Oblivion, I haven’t seen any of them in my adult life. I would have liked Ghost Town a lot back then, too, but now… well, it’s okay.

I actually liked the movie a lot more during its first half, when I still wasn’t sure what kind of movie it was going to be. Early on there’s a great bit of fantasy when a gnarly-lookin’ corpse bolts upright out of the ground and begs the hero of the film to save his town. At first you’ll be thankful the movie doesn’t exhibit many of the horror clichès that drag down movies like this, but then you realize it’s only because the filmmakers traded in their horror clichès for western ones. By the way, the stunts in this movie are pretty much on par with what you’d see at the 2 o’ clock show at an old west theme park.

What’s great about Ghost Town is there isn’t a lot of padding. In the opening scene, we see a woman get whisked away by an unspecified supernatural force. Minutes later, the sheriff investigating the disappearance gets shot at by a mysterious figure on a black horse. When his police Bronco supernaturally bursts into flames, he pursues his would-be attacker on foot, following him into a ghost town in the middle of the desert. By the way, it’s literally a ghost town and the spirits who populate it are operating on The Shining rules.

Here’s when the movie first shows signs of derailing: every person the sheriff talks to disappears the second he looks away. Once or twice would be enough, but it happens repeatedly for the next several minutes and each time the sheriff will be absolutely surprised it happened. There’s a lot of cheap scares in this section of the movie, and it takes quite a while for it to introduce the missing woman from the first scene. The damsel in distress, by the way, is played by Catherine Hicks, who you might recognize if you watched too much TV in the eighties—she’s been in CHiPs, Airwolf, and even Knight Rider. Whenever she’s trying to convey that her character’s distraught, it somehow looks like she’s smiling. 

The sheriff quickly finds out she was kidnapped by an outlaw ghost named Devlin, who conveniently wears black to remind us that A) this is a routine western and B) he’s the main villain. 

Devlin is alternatively kind of cool and kind of lame as a villain. He and his gang crucified the town’s original sheriff sometime around the 19th century, but not before the sheriff shot a bullet through one of Devlin’s cheek and out the other. Whereas most of the ghosts look like normal, everyday people, Devlin looks like a zombie. Why? I don’t know. I don’t think the filmmakers know, either. And no one seems to know why they haunt the town or how to lift the curse… that is until the movie closes in on its climax, at which point a bartender tells the hero exactly what he has to do to dispatch the villain, which is oddly specific for a character who, up until then, didn’t even seem to know she was a ghost.

Other offenses include a serious take on the old Bugs Bunny routine where the wascaly wabbit would plug Elmer Fudd’s gun with his finger to make it backfire. Then there’s the blind character, whose actor wears cloudy contact lenses in the first half of the movie, then resorts to just trying (and failing) to keep his irises tucked behind his eyelids.

I confess I’m being harder on this movie than it deserves. It’s decent fun most of the time and I’ve raved about movies here which weren’t as well made. But man, there was so much wasted potential here. It’s just a mediocre western with a handful of horror elements tossed in as an afterthought.

Come back at midnight Central Time for the next movie.

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