Ghost Riders (1987)
Studio: MVD Visual
Release date: February 15th, 2022
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
You’re probably familiar with the concept of “movie twins:” productions of similarly-themed films that are released within a year or so of each other, with famous examples like Armageddon & Deep Impact and Dante’s Peak & Volcano. You might not be familiar with an obscure instance of the phenomenon in the late-80s when Ghost Riders and Ghost Town arrived on video store shelves, tantalizing eager patrons with images of skeleton outlaws heralding vengeance from beyond the grave courtesy of some unvanquished Old West spirits. However, beyond this—and the fact that neither quite lives up to their evocative box art—these “twins” have very little in common, mostly because the latter was an Empire Pictures joint and all the low-rent funhouse kookiness that entails, while the former is more of a homespun regional effort produced by a ragtag Texas crew. This, of course, entails a different sort of kookiness that yields its own set of charms and frustrations borne out of these DIY productions. Ghost Riders doesn’t live up to its premise, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its moments. Get enough good old boys and girls together down in Texas, and that’s bound to happen.
A lot of that fun happens up front, with the Old West prologue, where firebrand preacher Thadeus Sutton (Bill Shaw) has gathered the town for an impromptu hanging of bandit Frank Clements (Mike Ammons). The town sheriff tries to intervene, reminding Sutton that this is technically vigilante justice as Clemets snarls in the background, swearing vengeance on whoever decides to hang him. That winds up being Sutton, who hastily sends him plunging to his death before his gang intrudes and rescues him. So far, so good—what we have here is the old “witch swears revenge on the descendents of their executioners” bit, only with a grizzled outlaw. Maybe it isn’t the most inspired thing we’ve ever seen, but it opens the door for some gnarly schlock—in theory.
In practice, it’s a prelude to tedium, as the story picks up 100 years later with Jim Sutton (also Shaw), the preacher’s descendant. A renowned Texas historian, Sutton begins to notice a curious pattern in his family history that’s seen violence visited upon all of his forefathers on the same day throughout the past century. He also discovers it was the day of Clements’s hanging, allowing the audience to put two and two together when a quartet of outlaws eventually roll into town and start gunning down everyone in their path.
Emphasis on eventually. It turns out Ghost Riders isn’t in any particular hurry to deliver on its title, preferring instead to hang out with Sutton’s son Hampton (Jim Peters), a Vietnam vet who flies planes at stunt shows. He’s also a certified chick magnet, much to the dismay of his buddy Cory (Ricky Long), who has apparently lost multiple girlfriends to this immaculately coiffed good old boy. It looks like it’s about to happen again when his latest girl, a college student named Pam (Cari Powell), learns that Hampton’s dad is the Jim Sutton. What follows is an awkward love triangle of sorts that unfolds in smoky bars and languid, creekside hangouts as Ghost Riders subjects you to the minutiae of small town Texas life: drinking beer, fishing, talking about ‘Nam, and shooting down hippie bullshit by constantly reaffirming your right to bear arms.
At some point, Clements and his gang interrupt one of the fishing outings, but here’s the thing: they still just look like regular-ass cowboys. No skeletons, no bodily decomposition: just four dudes on horseback, trotting through the woods and blowing away anyone in sight. There’s nothing particularly supernatural about this—I mean, it just sounds like Texas. Anyway, instead of setting the stage for some gory slasher carnage, this violent outburst heralds the sluggish climax of Ghost Riders, which finds our (admittedly charming) protagonists slowly putting the pieces together and recognizing that this outlaw gang hails from beyond the grave. Again, you can forgive them for not catching on considering there’s nothing in the film’s visual language to suggest otherwise—for all they know, they’re just being terrorized by some particularly committed 19th-century cosplayers.
As such, I guess the end of Ghost Riders is nominally an action movie: there are some shoot-outs, and our heroes hunker down trying to fend off Clements’s ghostly siege before Hampton has his big hero moment. Outside of some decent squib work, a couple of stunts, and an exploding Jeep, none of it is particularly rousing, though, which is disappointing since you’d hope this movie could at least be an entertaining bait-and-switch. Even if it doesn’t deliver the skeleton ghost cowboys promised by its cover, I would have settled for a wildly unhinged actioner that at least tried to compensate for the first hour of tedium. Instead, it just offers more tedium that ends on such a quick, confounding note that I thought someone accidentally deleted some footage while remastering it—but nope! Ghost Riders just decides enough is enough and shows some mercy.
Now, you might be wondering why I’d expect something like Ghost Riders—a movie with an obviously limited budget and full of folks with very sparse IMDb pages—to suddenly show some action chops. It’s a fair question, but it turns out this production shares ten crew members with Action U.S.A., including writer James Desmarais and cinematographer Thomas Callaway. Director Alan Stewart also produced and appeared in that film, which will teach you to never underestimate the abilities of a ragtag Texas crew making a genre movie. Maybe I’ve got it backwards: maybe instead of looking at Ghost Riders as a disappointment in the context, maybe I should imagine that it was a teachable moment for these guys. It proved that they could definitely make a movie, and they corrected their mistakes in a big way later on. There’s enough negativity in the world right now, so I am choosing to just tip my cap at Ghost Riders and appreciate whatever roundabout effect it may have had on gifting the world Action U.S.A., a movie so monumental that I now divide my life into two distinct parts: the time before I saw it, and the time after. I probably won’t be saying the same about Ghost Riders, but it’s always nice to fill one of these obscure genre gaps.
Long languishing in obscurity without even a DVD release, Ghost Riders finally escapes VHS purgatory with a solid little Blu-ray from MVD Visual. While the transfer tends to be a bit soft at times, the 16mm elements are in good shape, and a nice, subtle grain structure remains intact, treating viewers to quite an upgrade from its murky VHS presentation. The audio is a bit more uneven, with dialogue being drowned in the mix on occasion: it’s hardly a deal-breaker, though, and something tells me it has more to do with the film’s low budget roots than this particular restoration.
MVD has also included some nice extra features, including an audio commentary with Callaway and Demarais (with Steve Latshaw moderating), some trailers, two image galleries, and two making-of documentaries. “Bringing Out the Ghosts” is a newly-produced sit-down with Demarias and Callaway, who provide some scattershot anecdotes about the production’s roots, cast members, and various scenes. It confirms that Ghost Riders was indeed a low-budget, ragtag affair, inspired mostly by the fact that the crew had access to an Old West town and a troupe of cowboys (plus a stunt plane, which explains that particular subplot). But despite the threadbare nature of the production, it’s obvious these guys had some ambition, particularly when it came to camerawork, going so far as to rig up makeshift dolly tracks and employ handheld camerawork during some of the film’s more frenetic scenes. Most importantly, there’s nothing cynical about it all: these guys knew their resources were limited and did what they could to bring some flair to a venture that was produced expressly to turn a tidy profit from its low budget. And while they note that nobody was able to retire from it, Demarias and Callaway are proud that the film just did that. Their only regret is that director Alan Stewart is no longer around to see the film finding new life on Blu-ray.
However, Steward does prominently feature in “Low Budget Films,” a 12-minute excerpt from a 1986 Baylor University production that details the nature of independent filmmaking before focusing on a quartet of local productions. Unfortunately, we only see the stuff that’s pertinent to Ghost Riders here, but it does provide a nice look behind the scenes, plus some practical low budget filmmaking advice from Stewart, who relays lessons he learned from Texas indy legend S.F. Brownrigg. Like Demarias and Callaway, he makes no bones about what Ghost Riders is, but it’s also obvious he really wanted to make the best film possible from these circumstances. It makes for a crucial supplement on this disc because it’s a reminder that even lackluster movies like Ghost Riders often come from a sincere place and simply can’t outrun their constraints through conventional means. Stewart and company might not have delivered those ghastly outlaws, but they did rustle up a fun cast that was game enough to roll with the silliness. Sometimes, the best you can do is have two dudes sit on rocks in the middle of the creek and figure out how to get a girl to fall for them instead of a guy who’s old enough to be her dad—and that’s okay. Supplements are often about fostering a further appreciation for the films they support, and these might be the purest expression of that: I couldn’t help but kind of love the reckless, no-budget spirit driving Ghost Riders, even if I don’t completely love Ghost Riders itself.
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