Spooktastic Case File #174: “Michael Jackson’s Ghosts”

Spooktastic Case File #174: “Michael Jackson’s Ghosts”

Welcome, friends, to the third stage of My Year Of Flops. The first phase, of course, was the first Year Of Flops. The second was the release of My Year Of Flops: The A.V. Club Presents One Man’s Journey Deep Into The Heart Of Cinematic Failure. Today begins stage three. Stage four, I’m not at liberty to discuss. I just hope you’ve all been stocking up on duct tape and cyanide capsules. 

Where do I go from here? Where do we go from here? Where would you like My Year Of Flops to go from here? The scope of the project has evolved tremendously. What began as 600-word reviews in the A.V. Club blog ballooned into ambitious, free-ranging 2,000-word essays, and finally into a book that consumed the last year of my life. We’ve come a long way, baby. My Year Of Flops wouldn’t have gotten as far as it has without the support and contributions of you lovely people. I would love to hear your ideas and suggestions as to what you’d like to see from My Year Of Flops 3.0. Will this be the year I finally write about The Public Eye? I’d like to shake things up a little, and I eagerly await your ideas and guidance.

With that in mind, I figured I would do something a little different with the first post-book Case File. For the first time ever, I will be writing about a short film/long-form video, and also, perhaps not coincidentally, a film you can see in its entirety for free via the magic of the Internet. This might seem like a bit of a cheat. How can a short film be a flop when the criteria for a short film being successful are so amorphous and unquantifiable? What makes a short film a success? Wowing the festival circuit? Getting smuggled onto a DVD for a film with the decency to be more than 40 minutes long? Those are all good questions. I consider this Halloween-themed short film a flop because it was the brainchild of a man behind some of the most successful, famous short films of all time. I’m talking about a man so powerful, beloved, and ridiculously popular that he had the clout to sneak short films firmly into the mainstream. 

We’re discussing about a towering icon with the power to get people like Francis Ford Coppola and John Landis to direct long-form videos that doubled as short films, a global-entertainment supernova who sold 9 million copies of an hourlong documentary about the making of one of his videos. That’s right: 9 million people plunked down good money for what essentially was a promo for a promo. The gentleman in question starred in a short film that played for years at Disneyland, and recently returned to the amusement park 24 years after its initial release. 

I’m talking about Michael Jackson and the 1996 short film “Michael Jackson’s Ghosts. If you’ve never heard of it, you aren’t alone. It seems like every part of Jackson’s life and career was excavated following his death/martyrdom/posthumous rehabilitation/return to innocence, except for “Ghosts.” I only learned about it by reading On Michael Jackson, a fascinating exploration of the late icon’s enduring myth and complicated persona, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Margo Jefferson. Although it’s the product of one of the biggest celebrities of the 20th century, the film has never been available on DVD or VHS domestically, though I was able to track down a copy on something called Video Compact Disc, an obsolete format now playable in absolutely no players. True, “Ghosts” did play before some prints of Stephen King’s Thinner abroad, but that’s a bit of a comedown from having George Lucas executive produce a Coppola-directed, big-budget 3-D short film for Disneyland. 

But this is 2010. Thanks to the Internet, nothing is ever truly lost, not even the lesser, later short films of Michael Jackson, so I was able to find it on YouTube. Watch along, with me, dear reader and we shall share what a therapist friend of mine used to call a “process moment.” 

“Michael Jackson’s Ghosts” begins on what appears to be a leftover set from a 1930s Universal horror movie. Jackson doesn’t have interests, he has obsessions, and little fascinates him like the Hollywood of old. One of the sadder passages in the Silly Show-Biz Book Club selection The Michael Jackson Tapes involves the revelation that Jackson insisted on having a giant Shirley Temple poster placed on the wall of every hotel room he stayed in. Every one. So it’s not surprising that “Ghosts” feels deliberately old-fashioned, the product of a man for whom the horror genre might as well have ended with I Was A Teenage Werewolf instead of getting grosser, meaner, and less innocent, until it ultimately involved yucky stuff like teenagers getting vivisected, and naked women. 

Jefferson’s essay smartly delineates how the film poignantly reflects Jackson’s conception of himself as a wide-eyed, childlike innocent persecuted by a glowering adult world. Why must we judge people just because they’re eccentric, look weird, or like to sleep in the same bed as pre-pubescent boys they aren’t related to? This concern is foregrounded in an early bit of dialogue in which two adorable moppets ask a mob of townspeople who have descended upon the spooky estate of a gentleman known as “Maestro” (Jackson), “Why don’t we leave him alone?” “He hasn’t hurt anybody!” He gets his answer when The Mayor, a gentleman who looks and sounds suspiciously like Michael Jackson in a Michael Lerner getup at a Barton Fink theme party, hisses “He’s a weirdo. There’s no place in this town for weirdoes.” 

Given the inconvenient fact that Jackson had just beaten child-molestation charges at the time “Ghosts” was sort-of released, it’s more than a little queasy-making that the catalyst for the film’s action entails an adorable little boy making allegations about a “weirdo” who lives in a giant, creepy amusement park of a home and frolics with ghosts and other supernatural beasties. (At the gates of Maestro’s estate, an older boy even tells the younger, “Your fault, jerk. You just couldn’t keep your mouth shut.”) Jackson’s infamous Neverland Ranch was his version of Disneyland. The Maestro’s creepy lair is more like The Haunted Mansion.

Though the sets and music are pure golden-age horror, the villagers are coded as ’50s sitcom types, bland exemplars of suburban uptightitude. Their ranks include a young Mos Def, though he’s seldom called upon to do anything other than act scared of supernatural goings-on in a manner that would cause even Stepin Fetchit’s ghost to say “For God’s sake, man, show some dignity.” The group moves slowly and deliberately through the house, where they encounter the mysterious Maestro.

In a jarring, revealing bit of creative schizophrenia, Jackson in fat-white-man drag dresses down Jackson’s mysterious gentleman of leisure. The Michael Lerner incarnation of Jackson urges Maestro to leave their town for the sake of all that is good and right in the world. The dialogue in “Ghosts” is elemental to a perverse degree: No one ever obfuscates when they can communicate what they’re feeling in the bluntest, most primitive manner possible. So we learn that The Mayor thinks Maestro is weird and strange and doesn’t like him when The Mayor says, “You’re weird. You’re strange. I don’t like you.” 

Maestro proposes a scare-off. The glowering one-man force of repression isn’t having it. While the rest of the villagers are delighted by Jackson’s antics and goofy faces, the mayor responds with “Did you hear what I said, freaky-boy? It’s time to go.” After seven and a half minutes devoted primarily to villagers walking slowly through giant sets, and proxies issuing the case against Michael Jackson in schoolyard terms—he’s weird and strange and a weirdo, and has no business frightening people with his horrific fright-mask of a face—shit finally starts happening. After some harmless mugging, Maestro rips off his jaw, then pulls off the skin on his face to reveal a skull. By removing his skin, Jackson’s ghoulish pied piper does what the famously self-loathing singer seemed to have spent his entire adult life trying to do. But rather than becoming a new person altogether, he reverts back to his old face and introduces “the family,” an aggregation of dancing ghosts.

By 1996, Jackson wrestled constantly with the ghost of his early glory, success, and beauty. What do you do for an encore when you release the world’s most successful album and become the world’s most famous man? So it seems foolhardy to burden “Ghosts” with a conceit and makeup design that shamelessly recycles Thriller. There’s even a ghoul in a red leather jacket that seems like a counterproductive homage to Jackson’s greatest music-video triumph. Instead of reminding audiences of Jackson’s past, it just ends up underlining how far he’s fallen. 

When the Michael Jackson performance film This Is It came out, a fair share of the critical community apparently expected to see a drugged-out, incoherent, zombie-like drug casualty lurching about in a stoned haze. They were shocked and delighted to discover that even in his dying days, with a brain full of self-doubt and a body full of pills, Jackson could still be a dynamic, polished performer. Of course he could still perform even when the muse wasn’t visiting him, and he was clearly conserving his once-electric energy for actual concerts, not dress rehearsals: He’s Michael fucking Jackson. Performing under the best and worst of circumstances is what he’d been trained to do since tumbling out of his mother’s womb. Even at much less than his best, Jackson is still a terrific performer. That’s true of “Ghosts” as well. Though the dialogue is wooden, the conceit hokey, and the acting amateurish, Jackson and the film come alive during lengthy renditions of “2 Bad,” “Ghosts,” and “Is It Scary.”

“Ghosts” has two main draws beyond the once-magic, then hopelessly degraded name in its title: director Stan Winston’s creature effects and makeup, and Michael Jackson’s music. The songs in “Ghosts” all come from HIStory and Blood On The Dance Floor, so while there isn’t a Thriller-worthy winner in the bunch—though I like “Is It Scary,” and “2 Bad” is a lively, acidic spin through Jackson’s all-encompassing paranoia—Jackson’s music and dancing allow him to explore an adult spectrum of emotions foreign to his man-child persona. In his public appearances, Jackson was often reduced to playing a spacy, distracted Peter Pan, but in his songs and dancing, he could be angry, sexual, paranoid, and filled with rage. He could be a man instead of an overgrown boy.

After an endless song-and-dance production number set to “2 Bad,” Jackson once again rips off his face and becomes a skeleton for real this time while vamping his way through “Is It Scary.” It’s a weirdly liberating moment for his character and the film. As a human being, Jackson was never particularly convincing, in movies or in life. Yet as a dancing skeleton, he seems to have achieved a strange state of Zen. An icon who desperately wanted to slip out of his skin and become anyone else seems weirdly at home playing a terrifying beastie with no complicated skin to slip out of. 

“Ghosts” moves slowly, both because it seems to feature about 10 minutes’ worth of script for a 40-minute short, and because Winston wants to make sure everyone gets a long, long look at all of his nifty costume and creature design. “Ghosts” feels less like a proper narrative than a weird dream, especially once Maestro turns into a giant werewolf-like ghoul, and then into liquid mercury, before inhabiting the body of his archenemy The Mayor and forcing him to boogie. 

Jackson is free only when he’s dancing. There’s an infectious sense of joy in his gyrating, even when clunky fat suits and layers of unconvincing white-man makeup weigh him down. “Who’s the freak now? Freak-circus freaky-boy,” Maestro taunts the Mayor’s now ghoulish, demonic face. 

“So, do you still want me to go?” Maestro asks a crowd that, with the notable exception of the Mayor, is delighted by Maestro’s antics. Like horror-movie lovers everywhere, they deeply dig being scared. The Mayor answers affirmatively. Maestro acquiesces by literally crumbling. It’s the ultimate pre-adolescent fuck-you to punishment. You want me to leave? Fine! Why don’t I just fucking, disappear, then? Will that suit you? 

Maestro is gone, but only for a moment; when the Mayor tries to leave, Maestro’s now-giant face blocks the door. The Mayor flees in horror, leaving only a Mayor-shaped hole in the wall. 

“Ghosts” functions as a staggeringly blunt allegory for Jackson’s life and role in popular culture. Maestro is a preternaturally gifted oddball who only wants to bring joy and a few wholesome, cathartic scares to the children of the world, yet must battle hopelessly grown-up enemies of fun. In “Ghosts,” the Maestro’s lair is a porthole into a world beyond imagination, where adult rules don’t apply—like those tiresome rules banning adult/child sleepovers—and all that matters is play, dance, and fun. 

Though the screenplay is credited to Stan Winston and Mick Garris (who share story credits with Jackson and Stephen King) the film really seems to have been written by Jackson’s wounded inner child. Actually, everything in Jackson’s career seems to have originated deep within his wounded inner child, who called all the shots; the sad, self-destructive, confused adult couldn’t complete. It was Jackson’s blessing and curse to finally get revenge for childhood slights through adult self-mythologizing; it’s all too easy to imagine The Mayor’s lines in the mouths of Jackson’s older brothers, or neighborhood bullies, during his traumatic Jackson 5 days.

There was a time when we indulged Jackson’s every whim because, as Dave Chappelle argued compellingly on Chappelle’s Show, “He made Thriller.” That seemingly excuses everything. Well, just about everything. The world was F.A.O. Schwartz, and Jackson was a wide-eyed kid on a never-ending shopping spree. So if Jackson wanted to pal around with a chimp, build a private Disneyland in his back yard, and sleep in a hyperbaric chamber, more power to him. We’d put up with just about anything as long as the hits kept coming. 

But when the hits stopped coming, Jackson’s peccadilloes stopped being seen as eccentric, and became pathological, disturbing, and possibly criminal. By the time “Ghosts” came around, the adorable little boy of Jackson 5 and the beautiful, tender young man of Thriller had been replaced by someone the public didn’t recognize, a decaying plastic-surgery victim who looked more and more like a sentient skeleton with each passing day. 

“Ghosts” would have gotten a much different, much more receptive reception had it come out a decade earlier. Audiences would have appreciated the retro craft of the production numbers, character design, and makeup, even though it feels clunky, leaden, and overblown on the whole. But American audiences in 1996, few of whom had the opportunity to see “Ghosts, would have viewed it through the much darker lens of Jackson’s recent divorce from Lisa Marie Presley, child-abuse allegations, and permanent professional freefall. What might have seemed innocent in the recent aftermath of Thriller seemed self-indulgent and morbid in ways Jackson and his collaborators never envisioned. 

In his introduction to Slapstick (which was turned into Slapstick Of Another Kind, the previous Case File), Vonnegut described the novel as an “emotional autobiography” that was less about his actual life than what life felt like to its author. “Michael Jackson’s Ghosts” feels like an emotional autobiography as well, a phantasmagorical glimpse into the subjective experience of a man who always felt like an outsider, even in his own skin. “Ghosts” has a happy ending: The common folk and especially their adorable children welcome Maestro back into the fold and embrace him for being a showman and an eccentric with a straight line to the spirit world. In the real world, alas, Michael Jackson wasn’t as lucky. He had to die young and mysteriously to rehabilitate his terminally tattered image. 

Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Fiasco

Filed Under: Film

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