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GHOST TOWN (1988)

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"Time is all we got in Cruz Del Diablo. Your future will wait ‘til you get there. It’s the past you can’t do anything about…."
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Director: Richard Governor

Starring: Franc Luz, Catherine Hickland, Jimmie F. Skaggs, Penelope Windust, Bruce Glover, Blake Conway, Michael Alldredge, Zitto Kazann, Laura Schaefer

Screenplay: Duke Sandefur

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Synopsis: A young woman, Katie Barrett (Catherine Hickland), is driving down a desert road when her way is blocked by a fallen telegraph pole. Katie turns into a side-road. As she drives, she throws a wedding veil from her car and laughs out loud. Suddenly, the sound of horse’s hoofs reaches her, and her car stalls. Climbing out, Katie is suddenly engulfed by a ferocious sandstorm that drags her away from her car…. While practicing his marksmanship, Riverton County Deputy Sheriff Langley (Franc Luz) gets a call telling him that Katie’s father has reported her failure to turn up at her own wedding, and that a car that may be hers has been spotted. Langley meets the sheriff (Michael Alldredge) at the car, which is badly battered. When his call fails to get through, the sheriff goes for help. Langley notices hoof-prints in the road by Katie’s car and follows them. After driving for some time, Langley sees a figure on a black horse that fades before his eyes. Suddenly, Langley hears hoof-beats. The mysterious horseman rides right at him, firing shots that smash through the windscreen of Langley’s car. As the rider passes, Langley grabs his shotgun and leaps from his car, only to discover that his attacker has vanished. The next moment, Langley’s car grows scorchingly hot, then goes up in flames. Forced to walk across the desert, Langley comes across the broken-down remains of a watermill. Nearby is a wooden tombstone. Langley moves the marker to see what is written upon it, and a pair of decayed hands shoots from the ground to grabs his wrists. As Langley cries out in horror and struggles to free himself, the withered corpse sits up and tells him that he must free the town of evil. It then crumbles into dust, leaving only a sheriff’s badge which Langley pins on. Walking on, he discovers a derelict western town. As night falls, Langley rests in an old barber’s chair, unaware of the mysterious figures watching him through the window….

Comments: Ghost Town is an uneven Empire production that ultimately is more to be commended for its attempt to do something new within the horror genre than for the actual end result. Perhaps the most interesting thing about it is its split-vision of the town of Cruz Del Diablo. On one hand, this is the lawless town we’ve seen in thousands of westerns, populated by the usual stock characters: gunslingers, dancing girls, a whore-with-a-heart-of-gold saloon keeper, a bar pianist, and some basically good people too scared to do anything about their state of oppression. On the other hand, the film’s unflinchingly ugly view of "the old west" harks forward to the revisionism of Unforgiven (1992).

As the modern man and woman dropped into this historic nightmare, Franc Luz and Catherine Hickland manage to flesh out a couple of fairly interesting characterisations, sometimes against the odds. Duke Sandefur’s screenplay having decided, as screenplays often do, that men are much more sceptical about supernatural phenomena than women, Luz has the difficult job of trying not to look stupid while refusing to accept what’s going on. While this contrivance is occasionally irritating, it also leads to a genuinely funny moment when Langley attempts to recite Miranda at his undead adversary.

Ghost Town’s divided vision finds an interesting echo in Langley when he twice passes up an opportunity to backshoot Devlin. Whether or not it was intentional, these scenes suggest how unrealistically romanticised the modern view of "the old west" is: Langley is trying to play by rules that never existed. The character of Katie Barrett is initially sketched-in in a way that leads us to expect the usual spoilt rich-bitch who needs a rough ride and a good man to bring her down to earth. While this scenario pretty much eventuates, in Hickland’s hands Katie develops some unexpected shadings. In one effective scene, she is ordered to sing by her demonic admirer, who recoils when she stumbles into "Amazing Grace". Initially displaying a blunt selfishness that is oddly refreshing ("If you get shot up, I haven’t got a chance in hell!"), it is not long before Katie is risking her life to save Langley’s, and together the pair make an effective fighting force.

The weakest part of Ghost Town is Jimmie F. Skaggs’ portrayal of Devlin. No explanation is ever given as to why Devlin, alone of the undead, should be in a state of decay; however, his appearance and his cackling, over-the-top performance finally begin to suggest a poor man’s Freddy Krueger. The plot of Ghost Town holds the viewer’s interest, but nevertheless has some major flaws. The first of these is the film’s fundamental lack of internal logic. As the story unfolds, it transpires that the curse upon Cruz Del Diablo was invoked by its last sheriff, he whose corpse Langley discovers in the opening sequence. Since Harper is presented as a sincerely religious man, the notion of him having either the power or the inclination to inflict such a punishment upon the town is absurd. So too is the fact that it is then he, long undead, who begs Langley to free the town of evil.

Also confusing is the script’s lack of clarity over what the people of the town know about their situation: while some of them are fully aware, even to the point of knowing how the evil can be defeated, others seem, so to speak, to have lost track of the time. However, the single biggest problem with Ghost Town is its constant undercutting of its genuinely horrific moments. The flashback to the murder of Sheriff Harper – crucified on the watermill wheel, then buried alive – should be unrelentingly harrowing, but is spoilt by some painful dialogue ("Where’s your God now, Harper?"). Similarly, the carefully built-up atmosphere of Langley’s walk through the desert, and his discovery of Harper’s grave, is totally disrupted by the frankly stupid "talking corpse" scene. On the positive side, the film’s settings are well used, and the cinematography by Mac Ahlberg is a real asset. The ultimate defeat of Devlin, after what looks like yet another kicker ending, is perhaps more clever than credible, but I guarantee you won’t forget it. A sometimes exasperating mixture of the imaginative and the dumb, Ghost Town is a fair little horror film that leaves you wishing that a bit more care had gone into the overall shaping of the story.

Check out all the details of this movie on the IMDB