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Feature


John Carpenter blends horror and sci-fi in this action adventure set on Mars in the year 2176 as Martian police battle supernatural forces unleashed by a deep mining facility. (Taken from the official synopsis.)

In the year 2176, mankind has colonised Mars for the purpose of mining its valuable resources. Law is enforced by the Mars Police Force, which has a tough time maintaining order on the inhospitable world. One of their biggest problems is the notorious criminal James ‘Desolation’ Williams (Ice Cube), who has recently been arrested on suspicion of murder and is currently awaiting transportation from the remote outpost of Shining Canyon to the capital city of Chryse. The task of retrieving Williams falls to veteran officer Helena Braddock (Pam Grier) and her squad, which includes the rookie Bashira Kincaid (Clea Duvall), cocksure braggart Sgt. Jericho Butler (Jason Statham), reliable grunt Michael Descanso (Liam Waite) and Braddock's second-in-command, the tough, no-nonsense Lt. Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge).

Upon their arrival at Shining Canyon they find the town completely deserted. After exploring the nearby buildings they stumble upon the mutilated corpses of some of the miners—who have been strung up from the ceiling and beheaded—and a small group of survivors holed up in the local jail along with Williams. One of the survivors, Dr. Arlene Whitlock (Joanna Cassidy), tells of a mining operation that uncovered an ancient Martian burial site, and how she unwittingly unleashed the vengeful spirits of the planet’s long-extinct inhabitants. These ‘ghosts of Mars’ subsequently possessed many of the miners and savagely killed those that remained, and now they’ve made their way to Shining Canyon. When Braddock is killed, Ballard assumes control of the mission and makes the hard choice to team up with Williams and his convict posse in order to defend against the marauding Martians and survive long enough to warn her superiors of the impending threat.

Video


As best I can tell, Powerhouse’s release of Ghosts of Mars looks to be derived from the same master as Sony’s own 2009 Blu-ray. In my review of the Sony disc (linked below) I commented that it offered significant improvements over the various broadcast versions that I’d seen, looking better than I expected given the relatively low-budget origins and negative reception of the feature. Those observations still ring true, but in the intervening years I’ve witnessed much better restorations of even more obscure films, so Carpenter’s picture suffers by comparison.

With that said, the Powerhouse disc benefits from advances in encoding technologies and methodologies, which squeeze every last bit of detail from the ageing master. Grain is more finely resolved than Sony’s release, indicating that the image hasn’t been subjected to the same level of low-pass filtering. The image is also relatively free of film artefacts, or at least artefacts of any consequence (the odd fleck can be seen here and there). Unfortunately for Ghosts of Mars these subtle improvements only serve to draw attention to the already ropey effects and cheap sets.

I know that I saw the film theatrically, but it was such a negative experience I’ve all-but wiped it from my memory (I think I even fell asleep). Even so, I don’t profess to be one of those people who claim they can accurately remember what a film they saw in the cinema almost twenty years ago looked like, so I can’t speak to the theatrical accuracy of the visuals. The film is so highly stylised with red filters and the like it’s almost impossible to gauge anyway. What I will say is that everything looks fairly natural within the framework of the chosen aesthetic, and that the troublesome reds that were such an issue for standard-definition releases of the film are rendered without issue.  When compared to the Sony disc Powerhouse’s effort appears slightly warmer, but you’d be hard pressed to tell without the benefit of a direct comparison. Blacks are inky, retaining a reasonable amount of shadow detail to afford some depth. David McKenzie’s compression is up to his usual standards, so barring a complete restoration from the camera negative this is probably about as good as Ghosts of Mars is going to look.

Audio


The disc includes two audio tracks: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM 2.0 Stereo. The film was originally released with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, so the inclusion of a 2.0 track is curious. After making enquiries on Powerhouse’s Facebook page it seems that it may be a recreation of the analogue Dolby Stereo that would have accompanied the digital 5.1 track theatrically, but truth be told that’s a bit of a guess. Regardless, I stuck with the Master Audio track for my viewing and I suspect most people will do the same.

It’s not the most active or dynamic of tracks, but surround utilisation is reasonably consistent throughout, delivering environmental effects such as wind and the eerie sound of the disembodied Martian spirits, and allowing the heavy rock score to spread its wings. Dialogue is clean and delivered from the centre channel, while some fairly strong, if not ornament-rattling, bass reinforces the various explosions and gunshots. The constituent elements of the track are generally well balanced, although some dialogue and effects have a tendency to sound 'canned', which can make for a rather uneven experience at times. With that said, it’s still a respectable enough track all things considered.

English SDH subtitles are also included.

Extras


Powerhouse has assembled a reasonable collection of bonus material for its release of Ghosts of Mars, which includes everything found on the Sony Blu-ray and some interesting exclusives. A list of what can be found on the disc follows:

  • Audio Commentary with John Carpenter and Natasha Henstridge: Carpenter has long been one of my favourite commentators thanks to his fantastic chat-tracks with Kurt Russell (and indeed Roddy Piper and Peter Jason), and indeed this is undoubtedly one of the disc’s highlights.. The track is yet another free-flowing affair, featuring good-natured banter and aplenty of anecdotal information about all aspects of the shoot. Carpenter and Henstridge are both a bit on the cheeky side, which gives the track a bit of bite, but it's all in good fun and makes for a fairly enjoyable experience (even if they do think the film is better than it is).
  • The Guardian Interview with John Carpenter - Part Two, 1984-1994 (41 mins): In part two of this interview (part one can be found on Powerhouse’s Vampires Blu-ray) Carpenter continues his frank discussion about his career. Hosted by Nigel Floyd, this segment of the interview opens up the floor to the audience, although the quality of their questions is highly variable.
  • Video Diary: Red Desert Nights (17 mins): Although initially buoyed by the running time, I quickly realised that this featurette was a bit of a lame duck. It's basically quarter of an hour's worth of hand-held camera footage of the on-set shenanigans, but without any narration or interviews to contextualise to the events being documented.
  • Scoring Ghosts of Mars (6 mins): This short featurette goes behind-the-scenes at the recording session with John Carpenter, thrash band Anthrax, and various guest musicians. Although there's no interview footage, we do at least get to hear the guys chatting about the various takes and such, and it's probably worth watching for the Steve Vai footage alone.
  • Special Effects Deconstruction (7 mins): Again, this sounded fairly promising, but turned out to be most disappointing. It's basically just a series of storyboards, matte paintings, models and green screen sessions set to the film's score. There's no explanation as to how any of the effects were accomplished or any discussion with the SFX guys.
  • Concept Art Gallery: I think this one speaks for itself...
  • Original Theatrical Trailer: The film's original trailer is included in high-definition and does a surprisingly good job of promoting the film (Keith David’s voice-over helps in this regard).
  • Exclusive 24-page booklet with a new essay by Nick Pinkerton, and a 2001 on-set interview with John Carpenter: Exclusive to the initial limited dual-format release of the film (7,000 units), so if you want to get your hands on a copy you'd best not hang around.
  • DVD Copy

Overall


I’m a big fan of John Carpenter’s work, but I continue to be extremely disappointed by Ghosts of Mars. This review marked the first time I’d watched the film since the 2009 Blu-ray release and in all honestly I think it’s actually gotten worse with age… Although the premise is an interesting one the execution leaves much to be desired, as does the acting, the effects and, well, pretty much everything else. I think it's fair to say that Ghosts of Mars is a career-low for the once great master of horror.

As for Powerhouse’s Blu-ray release, well the audio-visual elements are acceptable, if not outstanding, but apart from the commentary and interview the extras are pretty disappointing. Of course it’s not really fair to lay the blame at Powerhouse’s feet, as the label has done the best that it could with the available materials. Unfortunately it’s these source limitations that consign Ghosts of Mars to ‘middle of the road’ catalogue status, much as they did with Sony’s own effort. Still, this is currently the best available version of the film on home video in all respects, so if you are a fan (there must be someone, right?) it’s an easy sell. Everyone else would be well advised to approach with caution…

* Note: The images below are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Additionally, at this time we do not know the actual release date for the Blu-ray.

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