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Friday, August 24, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Cheap and cheesy, 'Ghosts' makes Mars fun again

Seattle Times staff reporter

John Carpenter complains that he gets treated like a genius in Europe but a bum in the States.

And "Ghosts of Mars" may not get the "Halloween" director a seat opposite that gas-bag host of "The Actors Studio." It looks cheap, the acting isn't too good, the dialogue stinks, the bad guys are cheesy and the fighting is Saturday-morning caliber.

But I'd still choose it in a heartbeat over the other recent Mars movies, because it bears a distinctive Carpenter trait that somehow eluded the others: It's fun.

"John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars"

**
With Natasha Henstridge, Ice Cube, Jason Statham, Pam Grier. Directed by John Carpenter, from a screenplay by Carpenter and Larry Sulkis. 98 minutes. Rated R because of strong violence, gore, language and some drug content. Several theaters.
Talk about your good and pulpy "B" movie premises for an adolescent popcorn fest:

First off, you've got the babe from "Species" (Natasha Henstridge who, saints be praised, replaced Courtney Love at the last minute). She's a cop who shows up handcuffed and bruised as the sole occupant of a ghost train on the Red Planet in the year 2176.

The story unfolds in flashbacks (and flashbacks within flashbacks) as Lt. Melanie Ballard (Henstridge) tells her tale of carnage, possession and hairbreadth escapes to a tribunal of the matriarchy that runs the planet. (The reason for that goes unexplained.)

Ballard is sent with her crew (which includes blaxploitation icon Pam Grier and Jason Statham of "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels") to a mining colony to extradite "Desolation" Williams (Ice Cube), the planet's baaadest criminal. But something there is seriously wrong. The little town is nearly empty, and the few people remaining have locked themselves in the jail for protection.

The miners, it turns out, have accidentally unearthed the spirits of the planet's long-dead race, which left a curse against any transgressors. They've possessed most of the humans, who have filed their teeth and given themselves some extreme piercing jobs to look like a slightly-more-intense-than-average Marilyn Manson crowd. As the Martian ghouls lay bloody siege to the colony, the small band of cops and the criminals have to fight side-by-side against them.

Lots of gunplay, fisticuffs and gore follow in Carpenter's science-fiction/horror movie that's really another western in disguise — like his last film, 1998's "Vampires."

And speaking of a mining colony, Carpenter seems to be strip-mining himself. "Ghosts" is almost a direct remake of his great 1976 thriller, "Assault on Precinct 13" (which he based on Howard Hawks' 1959 "Rio Bravo"), down to the interracial teaming of the cop and crook. And the possessed bad guys are a bit like the ones in his 1987 "Prince of Darkness" (before Manson's time, it starred Alice Cooper).

Despite all the right elements, the movie never quite fires on all cylinders, either. There's a stiff feel to the pacing, and Carpenter somehow isn't able to recapture the tension and momentum of the low-budget "Precinct 13."

Mark "Ghosts" down as a flawed but worthy effort from an auteur whose near-misses are more entertaining than many others' hits.

Mark Rahner can be reached at 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com.

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