Ghost: Special Collector's Edition

Ghost: Special Collector's Edition (1990)
Paramount Home Video
Cast: Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg, Tony Goldwyn
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Still Gallery, Trailer

In 1990, the romantic thriller "Ghost" became the must-see date movie of the summer, making a believer out of everyone who saw it with its message that love truly can conquer all. It was also a risky undertaking, blending elements from several distinct genres. That director Jerry Zucker was best known at the time for the comic spoofs "Airplane!" and "Top Secret" didn't help matters either. Miraculously, things fell into place well enough to make it a contemporary classic, thanks in large part to one magical love scene set to The Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody" that is still subject for parody. The film's subsequent Oscar nomination for Best Picture might seem a little unwarranted more than 15 years later, but "Ghost" has not lost its sentimental appeal and remains a popular romance to this day.

Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore star as Sam Wheat and Molly Jensen, a lovely couple who have just set up their dream home in a New York City loft apartment. With the prospect of marriage looming over them, they seem completely inseparable. Nothing in the world could possibly break them apart. Unfortunately, the world sometimes works in mysterious ways. Walking home after seeing a play ("Macbeth," specifically, which has subtle thematic connections), they are approached by a young thug (Rick Aviles). In a failed attempt to rob them, he shoots Sam dead and escapes. Not realizing what has happened, Sam's spirit (the titular ghost) watches in disbelief as Molly cradles his bloody body in her arms. Although he is beckoned by a beaming light to join the spirit realm, he backs away and soon finds himself trapped in the human realm, unable to communicate with the living.

As he gets used to his spirit form, Sam passes the time watching Molly as she struggles to cope with her loss. He quickly finds a reason to hang around when his killer sneaks into her apartment and watches her. After following the killer, Sam discovers that his murder was no accident, but that he was set up. He stumbles upon Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg), a store-front psychic and scam artist who makes money by pretending to make contact with the dead. To her horror, she is actually able to hear Sam's voice, and he frantically enlists her help to warn Molly that the killer is now after her. When Molly informs their mutual friend, Carl Bruner (Tony Goldwyn), of her psychic visitor, he tries to convince her that she has been duped. Sam becomes desperate to save Molly from impending danger, but she sets up a major roadblock with her refusal to believe in an afterlife.

The idea behind "Ghost" is an intriguing one. Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin hatched the plot of a ghost story from the ghost's point of view from memories of "Hamlet" and the "Topper" TV show (this odd combination may also be responsible for the film's striking mix of tragedy and light comedy). Despite being a romantic film, "Ghost" is also surprisingly somber. Although I have seen smatterings of the movie on TV for several years and always enjoyed them, this was the first time that I had ever watched it from beginning to end, and I was caught off-guard by how much emphasis was given to the thriller aspects.

My TV viewings almost always centered on Whoopi Goldberg's scenes, and they provide the film with a most welcome comic relief. Goldberg received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her scene-stealing work, and she delivers some frequently inspired bits of hilarity. Her bank scene alone is a priceless showcase. But there is greater depth to her performance than what appears on the surface, and she displays a remarkable sense of restraint and poignancy, especially as the film reaches its dark and violent climax. Goldberg is easily the outstanding performer in this cast, though Moore, Goldwyn, and late character actor Vincent Schiavelli (as an angry ghost on the subway) turn in fine work as well. Only Swayze misses the mark with his hammy attempts at deep emotion, but he has good chemistry with Moore and Goldberg.

By far the most memorable and effective scene in the movie is Swayze and Moore's love scene at the potter's wheel. Years of parody and spoofing (by director Zucker's brother David, among others) have not tainted this intensely passionate moment, made all the more sensual by the accompaniment of The Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody," which quickly became a romance standard.

Not everything has aged well, however, most noticeably the special effects. While no doubt impressive in their time, the effects are glaring and unconvincing in the age of CGI. Some of them also seem painfully superfluous now, especially those at the beginning, just after Sam dies. Scenes of people walking through Sam, complete with his point-of-view shots of their insides, are showy and unessential, sometimes even laughable in their weirdness. The only thing that is possibly more outdated than the visual effects is Moore's infamous close-cropped hairdo.

Paramount Home Video's transfer for this special edition of "Ghost," presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, is definitely an improvement over the previous release. Contrast is much better, and colors appear to be truer in the new print as well. The opening credits display significant improvement, showing up bright white on this disc where the old ones were sort of grayish. Skin tones are a tad reddish, but not as much as they were in the older transfer. While there is still some grain in the darker scenes and speckles throughout, the new print is generally cleaner. There is some edge enhancement, and the picture is occasionally soft, but overall the image is nicely rendered.

A Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track highlights the audio department. Most of the sound is distributed through the front channels, with dialogue coming across a little hollow, but music and sound effects in the more action-packed scenes sound good in the rear speakers. Also included are a Dolby Digital 2.0 track, a French 2.0 track, and English subtitles.

Leading off the special features is a very good audio commentary with director Jerry Zucker and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin. This is the only feature carried over from the original release (the old making-of featurette has been replaced by a new one), and it is by far the best of the supplements. Zucker and Rubin provide tons of information about the production, writing, and inspiration for the film. They keep the discussion going and are consistently engaging. This is an enlightening and highly recommended track for fans of the film.

Next up is a 13-minute featurette, "Ghost Stories: The Making of a Classic." While interesting, there is little here that is not covered in greater detail in the commentary, save for some recent interviews with Patrick Swayze and Whoopi Goldberg. We do get precious few seconds of behind-the-scenes footage of tempers flaring, but there is nothing beyond the ordinary here.

"Inside the Paranormal" is a nine-minute spot featuring interviews with actual mediums who claim to speak with the dead. Some even make contact with departed pets! They basically comment on the authenticity of the portrayal of Oda Mae Brown and the depiction of the afterlife in general in the film.

The six-minute "Alchemy of a Love Scene" gives us a brief overview of the filming of the pottery scene. We hear some of the original ideas, including how it was originally supposed to lead into a full-on sex scene, and get some behind-the-scenes photos and footage.

The longest featurette is the 20-minute "Cinema's Great Romances." This has nothing directly to do with "Ghost," but rather is a look at the Paramount titles that made the American Film Institute's list of "100 Years, 100 Passions" a few years ago. Some 14 movies are featured, including such classic and contemporary titles as "Roman Holiday," "Love Story," "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "Titanic," and of course, "Ghost." Each film is showcased with a brief selection of clips that are accompanied by interviews with film critics and scholars.

A theatrical trailer and photo gallery bring this release to a close. While the features on this Special Edition are not without interest, they are mostly fluff and do not warrant an upgrade. As I said before, the commentary is the only bonus of real substance, and it is on the original release. If you love the film and do not own it already, the price of this new edition is enticing, but owners of the previous edition should save their money.

I could go on all day about how much I love Whoopi Goldberg in this movie, or "Unchained Melody." This is a film that has become an indelible part of 90s pop culture, and for the most part it remains a solid piece of entertainment today. It has a little bit of everything — romance, comedy, action, suspense — and it balances it all quite effectively. The love scenes tug at your heart strings, but the darker moments keep the sentimentality in check. It is certainly a product of its time, but "Ghost" still holds up well as one of the quintessential date movies, with something to offer for both the guys and the gals.