25th Anniversary of GHOSTS
October 25, 2021
Ghosts was released 25 years ago, having originally premiered on October 25th 1996 before going on to play alongside King’s movie Thinner.
In 1996, Michael Jackson returned to the spooky genre with “Ghosts”. Based on an original story by Mick Garris and Stephen King, the 40-minute spectacle was directed by make-up effects maestro Stan Winston and sees Michael Jackson playing five different roles across the special effects-driven supernatural tale, which at its centre contained the title song, as well as two other tracks, 2 Bad and Is It Scary.
The project was originally created under the working title of ‘Is It Scary’, and was to be directed by co-writer Mick Garris, who was known for working on a number of Stephen King projects such as the original mini-series of The Stand. But when he dropped out to direct another King project – the mini-series based on The Shining – special effects legend Stan Winston took over the project. All this led to a truly spectacular cinematic masterpiece, with a whopping budget of $15 million, which is still the most expensive music video ever made, the whole amount of which was paid by Michael himself.
The storyline sees the Mayor of Normal Valley (Jackson) leading an angry mob to the home of the Maestro (also Jackson), who has been telling ghost stories and performing magic tricks to the local towns-children. While the Mayor has plans to banish the Maestro, he is instead challenged to a “scaring contest”, where the first of the two of them to be scared is the one who to leave. After a face-off in which the Maestro dances with a gathering of ghouls and ghosts, he possesses the Mayor and then transforms himself into a terrifying demon, the Mayor exits through a window, and everyone agrees they have had a good old time and they all go about their business.
“I wanted Michael to play the haunted house guy,” said Winston, “but also the mayor of the town, and an evil demon who comes in at one point. Michael wanted badly to be accepted as an actor, as something more than the King of Pop. But it was so difficult for people to get past Michael’s persona, I thought that the only way he would be accepted as a real actor was if he played all these parts, disguised in makeup, so that no one would know it was him until the end. And he was very agreeable to that idea.”
The film tells the story of a strange and mysterious Maestro who is set upon by some angry locals who persecute him for being different and weird. Winston’s most significant script change to Mick Garris’s original script saw the introduction of The Mayor, who leads the townspeople against the Maestro. The confrontation occurs in the Maestro’s mansion, where the Maestro conjures up a dancing ghost family, including a CGI skeleton that dances as only Michael Jackson can.
Michael Jackson’s transformations included a scene where The Maestro stretches the skin of his face. Paul Mejias did a clay casting of Michael’s head from a life-cast impression. This sculpture served two purposes: first, it was used to cast the skin that Michael pulls off, revealing the skull underneath; secondly, the casting served as a form to sculpt Michael’s skull as the Skeleton.
Paul Mejias’s skull was used as the digital reference model for Michael’s skeleton dance. In one of the first instances of early motion-capture techniques, by putting markers on Michael’s body, his captured performance was able to drive the movements of the digital character that later transforms into the Super Ghoul.
In the video, ghostly dancers appear at first in ectoplasm form, then they take on solid form. These corporeal ghosts walk and jump on the walls, twirl on columns, and dance on ceilings. The effects were achieved by using a combination of digital compositing, some CGI enhancement and many in-camera tricks.
Mick Garris stated: “This was a REALLY rough early cut we did when I was directing this Michael Jackson film when it was called IS THIS SCARY? (Three years later, it was greatly expanded and retitled “Michael Jackson’s GHOSTS”.) It was before we ever got to the intended songs, as we never shot those. It was originally planned as a promotion for ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES. Stan Winston was in charge of the makeup and visual effects and took over as director when I went off to make THE SHINING. I have no idea how this got out, but it’s fascinating to revisit it all these years later. It became, and remains, by far the most expensive music video ever made. The original script was by Stephen King.”
French Photographer Christophe Boulmé created the cover of the movie and designed the box set. He shared in his recent book “Michael” that he was told the story of the short and created what we see today and Michael loved it. The Programme of the 1997 Cannes Film Festival where Ghosts was screened out of competition.
In December 1997, towards the end of promotion for Michael Jackson’s remix album Blood on the Dance Floor, a Deluxe Collector Box Set of Ghosts was released only in Europe. The box set included a VHS release of Jackson’s Ghosts mini-movie on home video and his Blood on the Dance Floor album on CD, as well as a CD maxi-single named the Limited Edition Minimax CD. “On the Line” was the first track on this single.
In 2001, Michael Jackson shared that he wanted to release “GHOSTS” on DVD during an interview for “Get Music” but this never came to fruition:
Anthony: Very good [laughing]. Well, we have Michael Mathew from Canada. He says, “I just saw ‘Ghosts’ on MTV. As always, you are awesome, Michael. Do you have any plans of releasing it as a DVD in America?”
Michael: Yes, it will be released as a DVD in America in it’s entirety, and some of the making of ‘Ghosts’. And that was one of my most favourite things I’ve ever done because it’s been a dream of mine for a long time to do something like, you know, scary but comical at the same time, and, uh, it’s all the elements, just fun. ’Cause I don’t want to scare people to the point where they’re afraid to go to sleep. I want it to have a little twist of humor. And within the laugher there is a tear, you know? It’s fun, you know. These ghosts, they weren’t really scary, they were fun. They walked up the ceilings. Little kids were laughing at them. They were fun. You know, we don’t want to horrify them. But we gave this fat man, this Mayor, his justice, for coming into my house, which was private property, judging me. You know.
During the Promotion of the Halloween Compilation “SCREAM” released in September 2017, Sony organised a few events around the world and screened “Thriller 3D” and “GHOSTS” before an album party.
In 2020, the film was available on Michael Jackson’s YouTube channel for a limited time from October 29 to November 1. Until we can finally hold in our hands a DVD/Blu-ray,
GHOSTS wird 25 Happy 25th Anniversary to “GHOSTS”