In fact, one can go all the way back to the year 1919 when a 15-chapter silver screen Western serial – Lightning Bryce – tinkered with elements more than a bit spectral in nature. Granted, the otherworldly bits are secondary to the main thrust of the work – it’s essentially a race to find gold deposits – but this silent era serial also hints at the supernatural in order to propel some of its subplots forward.
Then – decades later – audiences in 1973 were treated to a Western with much deeper spiritual flair when Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter allegedly came back from the beyond to wreak havoc with townsfolk who put him six feet under. A little over a decade later, Eastwood was back in the mold of an avenger gunslinger with Pale Rider: his ‘Preacher’ sought to settle a score between himself and a posse of lawmen who’d sell their services when times were tough.
One of the better releases that only flirts with the beyond came out in 2006: Seraphim Falls was written (in part) and directed by David Von Ancken and starred such marquee talent as Pierce Brosnan, Liam Neeson, and Anjelica Huston. I say that it “only flirts” because the spectral element really doesn’t emerge until the flick’s final reel when Brosnan’s ‘Gideon’ finds himself in a dire predicament requiring a decision that very well might involve the Devil himself … in the prettiest guise imaginable.
So 1987’s Ghost Riders certainly finds itself in good company … but how does it compare as a low-budget alternative to such blockbuster fare?
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging:
“1888. As the hangman’s noose tightens around his neck, Frank Clements, the most feared outlaw in the West, uses his last breath to invoke a generational curse on the town preacher and his descendants. 100 years later, Frank and his gang return from hell to seek their vengeance. Hampton, the great-grandson of the preacher, along with his friends Corey and Pam, all find themselves defenseless against these blood-thirsty phantom cowboys, who are impervious to weapons and seemingly cannot be stopped!”
Well, technically, that statement of advertising isn’t true; otherwise this film would still be going on three and one-half decades after it was originally released upon an unsuspecting audience all the way back in 1987 (per IMDB.com, following with a U.S. video release in 1988). That dastardly Frank Clements was stopped, but, yes, it took a bit of creative finagling to off the deadly specter and his gun-wielding posse in Ghost Riders.
The screenplay from Clay McBride and James Desmarais certainly never strives for Academy Award gold, giving the work a decidedly small-town feel and casting the best Community Theatre can afford. Jim Peters (as ‘Hampton’) never musters the Sylvester Stallone mystique, but the audience is asked to accept him as the Dollar Store equivalent. His troubled Vietnam vet doesn’t have an axe to grind over his time in the soup, but he still likes to fly planes and shoot guns anyway. His best bud ‘Cory’ (Ricky Long) isn’t only a crack mechanic but also is the adopted son he never had. Long gets the better speeches in the script, but the actor’s bigger claim-to-fame is serving behind-the-scenes as the master electrician to the Barney the Dinosaur program. (Oh, Hollywood! What fickle fate you leave!) Lastly, a comely Cari Powell (as ‘Pam’) serves adequately as a love interest for both men, though (yuup) she’ll be expected to make a choice one way or another before the guns go silent.
Still, Ghost Riders works mostly because I’ve no doubt it was put together by folks who have a genuine love of their respective crafts. It ain’t perfect – such is the nature of low-budget productions – but it moves along nicely before the cows come home: the curse is lifted, but not without a little gunplay here and there.
Ghost Riders (1987) was produced by Alan L. Stewart Productions. (IMDB.com reports this was its sole production.) DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated via MVD Visual. As for the technical specifications? Well … I try not to belabor some of the finer points on sights and sounds (I’m no expert), but this one has some audio issues for sure. Some of the earlier moments have some subpar recordings; I had to turn it up to clearly hear some of the line delivery, but it isn’t as if anything is lost in translations. It’s just some bad audio. Lastly, if you’re looking for special features, then you’re in for a treat. This Blu-ray release boasts an audio commentary, two documentaries on the production, and some other little bits that make for pleasant viewing. A surprising collection, indeed.
(Mildly) Recommended. There’s low budget, and then there’s really low budget … and Ghost Riders (1987) certainly qualifies as an ultra-modest bargain basement affair. But despite all of the obvious blemishes and maybe even a few unintended laughs, it remains a reasonably well-plotted small-scale affair. Don’t look for any grand sequences – much less any organic character development – and you’re likely to muster up a little bit of fun with this forgettable 90-minute potboiler … though there’s a ghost of a chance it’ll ever mean more to you.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at MVD Visual provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray of Ghost Riders (1987) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.