ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

Death: A Playground
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The macho dialogue given to Ms. Henstridge moves the film straight out into the realm of "unbelievability," unmooring it from genuine suspense and into the realm of "play" ala the ancient chidlren's game of "Cowboys and Indians" wherein a garage or porch is used as the prison, and the Indians are always waiting to be rescued by their brother still at large. In the matriarchy (mom is inside making lunch while the action goes on)  death ceases to be scary; no one is born, no one really dies. Melanie and Helena participate in the fray like two bemused young babysitters. Their presence in the game adds a polymorphously perverse sexual charge to the act of being captured and "held" in the lap of the jail.
 
 Indeed the film's real genuine pleasure lies in just this sense of childish make-believe. It is never very difficult to remember that this is "just a movie." For an example we can take the initial scenes of Melanie and Jericho exploring the jail. As they navigate the sinister corridors of the Shining Canyon complex, all suspense is drained by Jericho's tiresome flirtations; “Not many of us breeders around -- be a shame not to give it a go," he says. The word "breeder" being a term for heterosexuals within the gay community, this infers the current sexual climate of Mars to be proudly non-reproductive. The men--with the exception of Sgt. Jericho (who it should be noted is the only "man" with any sort of law authority or rank in the picture)--exhibit no sexual desire. By his lust for Melanie, no matter how juvenile the manner in which it is expressed, Jericho establishes himself as the only thing close to a male "adult" in the entire picture. Our response as viewers is to be less afraid and more angry and annoyed at Jericho for not "playing fair." Jericho came over to the party pretending to want to play cowboys and Indians, but now he's in the kitchen, flirting with the babysitter. For more unpleasant than any severed head is the feeling that Jericho will instigate the creation of an Oedipal scene where once was nothing, nice cold nothing, like we like it. This idea is validated when they stumble onto a gently turning mobile made of scissors--the death drive mirror opposite of the mobile above their unborn earth infant's crib.
 
Similarly, when the male rookie Discanso (Liam Waite)  arrives to narrate the concurrent flashback to and through Melanie, he does so by barging in and shouting, "The rec room is a slaughterhouse!" as if trying to lure in patrons to a spook show on the carnival midway. A suburban 1970's term, rec-room is generally the room in a building or home reserved for relaxing and playing. As children, my friends and I would spend weekend nights making the rec room into a haunted house, replete with plastic skulls, candles and costumes, while our parents had cocktails in the other room. When we were ready, we would bring the inebriated parents through the darkened rec-room, one by one, often blindfolded, to experience our little horrors. Clearly Carpenter harbors similarly fond memories. The flashback to the rec room shows decapitated bodies hanging from the ceiling, but again there is no sense of genuine horror, only the goofy chill of a kid's spook show. 
 
If the label "John Carpenter" signifies some sort of conventional horror film, we easily understand why the film did so badly at the box office. Though staying strictly within genre guidelines, Carpenter breaks his unspoken contract with the viewer to deliver such and such amounts of suspense and shock and such and such times. If this is science fiction, how come there is not a single space ship or futuristic gizmo? If this is horror then where are the victims, the screaming heroine in need of rescue?
 
The mistake here is the misreprentation of Carpenter's oeuvre. His most famous film, Halloween (1979) was genuinely scary, arguably one of the scariest of all time, but it was also humorous. There were in-jokes galore, nods to Howard Hawks films and over the top moments of deadpan hilarity. The Carpenter "sign" therefore has been unjustly re-interpreted by the forgetful masses, which accounts for the misreading of Ghosts, his most misunderstood, ahead of its time, masterwork. 
 
Taken at face value,  the film works as a satiric action movie straight out of the late 70's early 80's tradition, which makes it seem merely "dated" to modern viewers. Once one clears themselves of these expectations, the headless bodies don’t have to work as horror, rather they work as exposed signifiers of horror, meant to be enjoyed "straight up" rather than under cover of anxiety-producing narrative; horror cinema as post-modern childhood nostalgia. This nostalgia is confirmed with the sudden, welcome appearance of Joanna Cassiday, the snake-dancing replicant in Bladerunner (1979) who made a huge impression with fans of the film, and has hardly seen since. She plays Whitlock, the scientist who witnessed firsthand the mining accident at Trucker's Ridge. A flashback ensues as Whitlock described her escape: We see her sailing through the black Martian sky in a big weather balloon. Photographed from balloon-eye-level against the jet black night,  a dream like sense of safety and scale pervades,  as if the whole thing is miniature (which it obviously was) and taking place indoors. The action is photographed from a balloon-eye level, exactly where we would be if we were a kneeling five or six year old child swooping a balloon down on his Shining Canyon play set as it lay spread out on the rec room floor.
 
So with Melanie as our babysitter/mother we are ready to meet the cool kid who will be our bad influence playmate, Desolation Williams (Ice Cube). We first see him alone in his cell, sitting with perfect posture, head slightly lowered, as if waiting for punishment in the high school principal's office. We get the impression he is tough, a badass. Melanie though is not afraid of him, and he eventually warms to her fearless blondeness, revealing he is just a troubled kid trying to stay alive. They don’t form a romantic bond, just some warrior respect, and of course you could read that as typical Hollywood interracial phobia, but I think you would be doing Carpenter and the movie a serious wrong. Romance and sex has never been what Carpenter is about, but casting againt racist and sexist type is, and her the image of a resolutely tough black criminal treating a thin blonde female cop as an older sister heals a whole slew of social-filmic wounds.

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AT PLAY IN THE FIELDS OF KALI
 
 Furthering the pre-sexual "at play" aspect of the film are the villains; possessed miners-- the titular "ghosts." Once these Martian spores take over the human body, they look and act like Marilyn Manson fans in the back row of a concert, literally tripping their faces off on some sort of powerful hallucinogen. Their fascination with their hands and flesh both exemplifies "psych ward hippy" dancing and the modern primitive alienated young person’s drive towards self mutilation (cutting), tattooing, and piercing. Their fascination with "the newness" of their new body is a unique touch to the "possessed-by-alien-forces" subject. The body enters the realm of "the real" in Lacanian terms; instead of a symbol of self the body becomes the "stain." This druggie behavior links the ghosts with Melanie and her own drug habit, further establishing the subtextual maternal link between her and the Martians. When we finally get a peek at the possessed miners they are engaged in all sorts of dark theatrics, a neo-primitive convention complete with fire blowing and motorycle stunts. At this point we get our first look at Big Daddy Mars (Richard Cetrone), the leader of the tribe, a pro wrestling Kiss cover band member who shrieks and snarls and orchestrates slow mo beheadings in a cross-dissolving montage. These scenes play like a pre-CGI gore effects Oscar tribute montage to violent 1980's genre cinema: Road Warrior (1981), Apocalypse Now (1979), Conan the Barbarian (1982), The Warriors (1979) , Reurn of the Living Dead (1985), not to mention Carpenter’s own films of that era.
 
Thus the Ghost train hops the tracks of linear time. Watching it now in my 30's, I am constantly thinking how much I would have loved this film if I saw it when I was 15 in the early 1980's. Perhaps this movie will simply not be as enjoyable to those who never imagined they were struggling for survival in a post-nuclear wasteland in their backyards. Tim Burton's films access similar childhood nostalgia for the macabre, but he focuses on the UHF television portion of this childhood, via '1950's Universal and 1960’s Hammer monsters.  The films Carpenter references in Ghosts of Mars don't have that childhood shimmer; they burn with the rust-caked anger of adolescence. To understand Ghosts of Mars one needs to, I assume, have grown up on these films, and to want to return to the womb, to a time before you ever saw one.
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Natasha Henstridge in SPECIES (1997)

NATASHA HENSTRIDGE:
QUEEN OF THE DEATH COMPLEX
 
 Melanie's role as "mother" both exemplifies and subtextualizes the death drive; she is the "negative maternal sex object." Her power over Desolation and the buddies who come to rescue him (comically named Uno, Dos and Tres, reminiscent of Snow White's seven dwarfs) is won by being stronger; she's the babysitter who has to wrestle the 12-year old boy to the floor to win his respect. In one scene she grabs Uno's arm and pins it behind his back, asking "Who's in charge here?" He struggles. "Who's in charge here?"  she says again. "You! You!" he finally answers.
 
 Again, this assertion of macho authority seems a bit off coming from a slim, good-natured actress like Henstridge. One can't quite take her seriously as a ball-busting lady cop, but again this works to the film's subversive advantage. She is the cute babysitter all the dwarfs want to be bossed around by, tucked in at bedtime by, even punished by. This infatuation not only applies to Desolation and his three dwarfs but to the viewer, and the Martian hordes outside. Denied access to this hot babysitter/mother, the hordes will try to breach her womb-jail any means they can muster. It's a matter of reproduction on rewind; the sterile Mars surface, populated by non-breeders, harbors a deep well of evil spores--the angy unborn children of a dormant planet. Once the spores are freed they are still denied access to a womb, so they must come in via the mouth or nostrils. Every possession they succeed in is just a missed chance to get into Melanie. She acts as death goddess by killing their temporary human hosts, freeing them so they can try again to infiltrate her; killed and borne again in a single blast.
 

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SPECIES (1997)

 This sort of Kali quality is a trait Henstridge also showed in Species (1997) the film that made her an international cult star. There she played Syl, an alien/human hybrid who escapes her medical lab upbringing and hunts for a "breeder" partner, to mate with, mantis-like. Thanks to Henstridge's startling beauty and sex appeal, this death/re-birth by vagina dentata becomes desirable, accounting for the film's tremendous appeal. Her allure is thus now and forever linked to the key Freudian primordial fantasy -- to die and be reborn into a nicer mom's womb, to move from outside the screen to inside the actress. This is the death drive’s actual goal realized via cinema, and she is its ultimate goddess, the modern Kali, ripping your heart out with one hand, and pulling you out of the void into life with the other.
 
Melanie, the elected stoner cop of Mars, can be easily read as an extension of Syl. Now mature and neutered, has returned to Mars-- her genetic home planet--unaware she is the symbolic mom (she is Mars, in this sense) to Martian soul-spores seeping from a forbidden door in the Shining Canyon mine.  Instead, the amnesiac Syl/Melanie (the Vertigo Kim Novak of science fiction) adopts a role more like the cool substitute teacher played by Michelle Pfieffer in Dangerous Minds (1995). In accepting Melanie as an authority figure, Desolation and his multi-ethnic "compadres" choose her as a surrogate mother, but not as a sex partner/devourer-- in this way they are like Hindu monks, moving past the fear/desire trip of birth/death (represented by Kali's six arms, which kill and bring forth life simultaneously) and into the realms of enlightenment.
 
When in a quieter moment Desolation and Melanie discuss matters, he talks about his rough childhood, and that the most important thing is "stayin' alive." The amnesiac Melanie/Syl/Kali replies: "Yeah, but for what?" For Syl/Mel, survival mechanisms are as anachronistic as Jericho's sexual desires; that stuff is played out, now it's more about following orders, the post-enlightenment “chopping wood and carrying water” which is what one is free to do in lieu of raising children. If the whole Mars-thing is just a game, a fantasy role playing session, then she is a player who wants out, and who views Desolation's determination to "stay in the game" as clinging for the sake of clinging. Nonetheless they admit they are a lot alike, only as Desolation points out:
 
"You got the woman behind your bullshit."
 
This rule no. 1 in the Kali field of play -- the babysitter has been given full authority by mom, or vice versa. The male submission to that authority here becomes sexualized, restoring the lights of jouissance via the wattage of putting a woman “in charge."
 
The babysitter/mom split is worth investigating. In pre-modern cultures, the approximate age of motherhood would be the age of the babysitter today, and just as Michael Meyers is revealed to be Jamie Lee Curtis' brother in the TV extended version of Carpenter's Halloween, just as Norman Bates turns out to be his own mother in Psycho, or Ripley gives birth to herself in the Alien series, surely if there was time in a theatrical-release Carpenter film for big psychological twists,  Melanie would realize she is the mother of the Martian spores she rejects, probably via another flashback. As it is, we must hunt for clues, such as when Big Daddy is able to sense Melanie watching him from beyond a hill with binoculars. He stops, turns to look in her direction with a sudden sneaking recognition, and then leads his gang towards her with all the ferocity of a rejected child can muster.
 
Another clue is when she actually does become possessed by a Martian spore and is left outside to turn into a ghost of Mars by Desolation and Jericho (note that they can't kill her outright, instead this becomes their non-dwarf version of putting Snow White in a glass case.) Jericho doses her with a hit of clear from her stash to "fuck with anything that's in there," the rock and roll last rite. With the help of this "spirit guide," rather than become possessed by the Martian intelligences, she has a vision of ancient Martian civilization, where Big Daddy Mars is conducting a massive rally of his army, generating cheers and hooplah. The drugged Melanie witnessing all this from outside their time becomes their holy virgin "Big Other" for whom such ceremonies and rallies are conducted (4), watching them from a space beyond the realm of their Martian language. But she is their death mother, not their birth mother and rather than accept their presence in her holy temple body, she spits them out of her mouth, both giving birth to her self via the return of her individual "voice" which expresses itself as that controversial act of “owning one’s ovaries,” abortion. Her reaction is similar to Ripley's when she kills her half alien-half human baby at the climax of Alien Resurrection (1997). Free of any sense of fear for their own mortality, both women are reborn as Medea, taking the life of their offspring in the ultimate act of rejection, a great big "fuck you" to the dictates of their maternal natures.
 
Carpenter's Mars is the logical, 1990's AIDS-extension of the male fantasy matriarchies of the cheesy 1950's. It's Cat Women of the Moon come full circle; Melanie Ballard rides into this barren infertile wasteland like John Wayne's anima in the Jungian shadow of Rio Bravo. Decadence and a death wish are her path to life. The collective unconscious of a vanished race enters her psyche and is about get its ass kicked back out. Reincarnation is reversed, life is sucked back into her womb where it vanishes, and the classic death drive fantasy becomes fulfilled, only (unlike Species) sans sex (this is a childhood game after all). As viewers though, we don't mind staying alive, for Melanie/Death assures us she she'll get to us sooner or later, so just relax, she tells us, and don't give a fuck, start kicking ass, and we do, since there is the undoubted promise we will have her to ourselves, as we help her decimate the ranks of our unborn siblings in violent play/anti-sex.

NEXT - MOM: THE JAIL

photos c. 2001 Screen Gems

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