90s Movie Challenge Week 5: Ghost (1990)

It’s that time again chums, to delve back into the archives as Paul Childs takes us back in time for another #90sMC. This week he kicks off our celebration of all things amorous throughout February – LurveFest ’21 – with the first of four romantic offerings from the 90s as he delves into 1990’s top-grossing film.

Spin up your potter’s wheel – it’s Ghost!

Some mild SPOILERS follow.

Have you ever been to see the same film at the cinema twice? Of course, you have! It’s almost the done things these days and one of the reasons the biggest films at the box office manage to generate the numbers they do – Avengers Assemble, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Titanic, Spider-Man – they’re all films I’ve seen twice or more on the big screen.

But can you remember what the first film you went to see twice was? By 1990, fifteen-year-old me had seen a handful of films multiple times at the cinema – the Star Wars films and one or two Disneys being the main ones – but those had been return viewings on re-release, years apart. I’d never been back to see the same film more than once in the same run before. And in the small, multiplex-less town where I grew up, films came and went very quickly (they normally lasted one week, two if you were lucky), so if you wanted to see something twice, you had to go back pretty much in the same week.

But in 1990 I made the conscious decision to part with £1.20 of my hard-earned Saturday job cash for two nights running (yes, that’s right – it was a little over a pound for a cinema ticket back then). The first night I saw it was, as with many of my 80s and 90s cinema trips, accompanied by school friends. The second time, which was just one night later, ties in with a story I told about going to see (or not, as it turned out) Arachnophobia about a year later (see my Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves entry for that story). However, for the TL:DR version – I plucked up the courage to ask a girl called Marina, who I had quietly admired for some time, out on an ill-fated date (we each waited at the wrong place and both thought we’d been stood up).

However, what I didn’t mention in that piece was that the non-date I talked about wasn’t my first failed dalliance with a cinema-date with Marina. That was the first time I’d asked her out – but the day after I saw Ghost with my friends I got a phone call from Marina asking me if I’d like to go to the cinema with her to see it.

This was huge news to me. In my entire life, I’ve been asked out by a girl a grand total of three times. The first was my first ever date with a girl called Julie. We went to see The Living Daylights in 1987 (the story of which I told in my piece about The Lost Boys as part of last year’s #80sMC). The last was when the girl who is now my wife made the first move (due to my being both painfully shy and terrified of rejection). Marina asking me to take her to see Ghost was the second.

A girl.

Asking me to take her to the cinema to see a popular film.

A ROMANTIC popular film at that.


Despite having already seen it and already running out of cash, it was a no-brainer. Of course, I’d go, I told her and arranged to meet her at the cinema. If you read that Robin Hood piece, you’ll already know that this “date” must have gone horribly wrong somehow because almost a year later, I still wasn’t dating Marina.

And you’d be right.

I was dressed in my nicest clothes. I’d had a bath. Combed my hair. Put on some aftershave. The works. I even made sure I had enough money on me to go for a burger at McDonald’s afterwards. I was looking, to my fifteen-year-old sensibilities, pretty fine. Tonight was the night. Oh yes.

Until it wasn’t. That would be when Marina turned up.

Corby Forum cinema, sadly now demolished, was a concrete and corrugated metal cube perched atop the bus station and part of the back end of the town centre. It was built in 1973 and opened as The Oscar – part of a chain of cinemas bearing Jerry Lewis’s endorsement. It was renamed Focus after just a few months due to the Academy (yes, THAT Academy) complaining about the name. After just a handful of years the cinema, and much of the town centre surrounding it was regarded as a monstrosity. A bit – no a LOT – of an eyesore. These days, now it’s gone it’s been re-evaluated as not so much a masterpiece as a curiosity of 1970s Brutalism. It was renamed in the early 1980s to Forum when the Focus group was sold for just 1p.

There were three ways to get up to that cinema. One was through a small entrance off the main shopping street downstairs, up a spiral staircase right up into the cinema’s lobby. That was my favourite entrance as a kid, but it was only open during the day, getting locked when the shops closed at 5.30. I remember gazing longingly at the Josh Kirby poster for Return Of The Jedi in that little window between the shops. The other two ways up there were via a flight of stairs at each end of a cold, grey plaza, which was essentially the shopping mall’s roof. As well as the cinema there were many council offices, a handful of flats, the top floor of the multi-storey car park and also the town library up there. The whole area was concrete and glass as far as the eye could see and when the wind blew through it, you really regretted choosing a popular film to queue up for (I remember lining up all around that block for E.T., Return of the Jedi, Transformers: The Movie and Batman, as well as many others).

If you look at the photo above you can see where I stood – just under that big F over the door. You can also see the staircase that I saw Marina walk up while I waited. That was the same staircase that Ben, Faye, Rob, Lesley, Michelle, Chris, Antoinette, Lynn and Kev also walked up right behind her. It dawned on me pretty quickly that Marina hadn’t asked me out on a date at all. She’d invited me on a church youth group night out.

I was, once more, in The Friend Zone.

Still, I got to sit next to her so it wasn’t a total loss. I also got to see Ghost again – which I had really enjoyed the night before. In fact, I might even go as far as saying that, for a short time, Ghost was my favourite film. Honest, it’s nothing to do with the fact the Marina snuggled into me during the sad bits (of which, if you’ve seen it, you’ll know are many) and didn’t protest when I put my arm around her to comfort her.

Being the consummate coward I was when it came to girls and romance, it would be around six more months before I did anything about that, but you can read the whole sad story of my second (and final) bungled attempt romance Marina in the Robin Hood article.

Despite receiving a lukewarm critical reception Ghost went on to become the most successful film of 1990 (fending off other big hitters like Pretty Woman, Home Alone, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Total Recall at the box office) and at the time it was also the third most successful film of all time (E.T. and Star Wars being the other two). The Righteous Brothers did pretty well out of it too as the inclusion of their ballad, Unchained Melody, saw it zoom straight up to number one in the UK singles chart following the film’s release and it secured a coveted spot on Disc (or tape) One, Side One of NOW That’s What I Call Music 18.

Now 18
With its extensive selection of cover versions, remixes, samples and re-releases, the 18th volume is not one of the NOW series’ finest hours!

Unchained Melody actually began life as the theme tune to another film – a prison drama called Unchained (and now the song’s title suddenly makes sense). It was originally performed by Todd Duncan and has reportedly been recorded over 1500 times. It’s been number one in the UK four times (Jimmy Young in 1955, The RB’s in 1990, Robson & Jerome in ’95, Gareth Gates in 2002). Only one other song has been number one four times in the UK – Do They Know It’s Christmas by the various incarnations of Band Aid.

As with Ghost, I’d also say that for a while Unchained Melody was probably my favourite song. When I was in the sixth form I had a compilation tape of love songs that I fully intended to give to my girlfriend (when I finally got one). Unchained Melody was the opener on it. It was certainly popular as the closer for school discos in 1990 and early ’91 until Bryan Adams and then Whitney Houston crashed the slow dance party. At any number of our school’s regular youth club nights Bobby Hatfield would croon about hungering for his girl’s touch and I’d sit around the edge of the dance floor willing any of the vast number of girls in attendance to come over and ask me to dance with them.

Why didn’t you just ask them, I hear you say.

Well, I already mentioned that I was shy. But I did actually invite a girl from my class, Claire, to dance with me when the DJ spun that particular track one time. She said no. I went back to my chair and stared at the floor, mortified at what had happened. Maybe 20-30 seconds later I felt a tap on my shoulder. She had changed her mind. Which was nice. But I could tell it was a pity dance. I think I can actually pinpoint that rejection as the moment that I made the transition from shy to painfully shy.

It’s starting to occur to me that many of these nostalgic movie stories of mine come with cautionary tales of failed attempts at romance. Not that I was obsessed or anything. (You totally were. Ed.) I’m not actually sure me regaling you with my larks is for your benefit or if this is a form of therapy for me. (I charge by the minute and would really like my sofa back, please, so if that’s all, your time’s up. Ed.)

So, enough doomed romance malarkey. Let’s talk about Ghost again. (Please, dear God, please. Ed.)

Considering what I said above about its financial success, it’s surprising that Ghost has become one of those films we just don’t tend to talk about these days. Watching it again earlier this week I think I can tell why too.

It’s not the acting. Everyone involved puts in admirable turns. None more so than Whoopi Goldberg who is very much the heart of this movie and totally deserved her Oscar-winning turn as the charlatan turned reluctant genuine-medium Oda-Mae Brown. She adds a much-needed air of humour and lightness in what could have descended into a self-indulgent melodrama. That’s not to say she is entirely comic relief. In fact, one of the film’s pivotal scenes, when she allows Sam to possess her body so he can touch and dance with his lover Molly (Demi Moore) one more time really shows off her serious acting chops. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but in 2020, that scene is a powerful and important one. It’s just a shame that director Jerry Zucker chose to cut away and then to cut back with Swayze in Goldberg’s place. Had he allowed the entire scene to play out with the two women (one of them black, no less) culminating in, dare I say it, a kiss, that would have been one of the bravest and most important scenes in movie history. But this was 1990, not 2021. So he didn’t.

Vincent Schiavelli is also fantastic as the disturbed subway poltergeist who teaches Sam how to touch and move objects. His F-Bomb really took me by surprise when I first saw the film. It was only the third film in the UK to receive a 12 certificate (the previous two were Batman and Look Who’s Talking). Today it seems fairly tame, but it was a really shocking moment in 1990 (Just to point out, I was familiar and indeed comfortable with swearing in 15 or 18 certificate films, as well as with my schoolmates – it’s just that I wasn’t expecting it in a film deemed suitable for twelve-year-olds).

So the performances are not the reason we don’t talk about Ghost anymore.

It’s also not the story. By today’s standards, it’s a fairly standard supernatural plot in which the ghost has to resolve some unfinished business before moving onto his eternal rest. Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin came up with the Oscar-winning screenplay after seeing Hamlet at the theatre and wondering how the story would play out from the ghost’s perspective. That led to the idea of a ghost solving his own murder. But that was relatively unique at the time, and it’s well-paced with just the right amount of drama, action, comedy and romance thanks to Rubin’s writing and Zucker’s direction.

Neither is it the notorious potter’s wheel scene. It may have been heavily parodied, most memorably in The Naked Gun 2½ (“From the Brother of the Director Of Ghost”) and the Wallace And Gromit film A Matter of Loaf And Death but it’s still a beautifully shot and pieced together moment. Zucker had planned for a full-on sex scene at that point in the film, but looking back at the day’s footage of Molly and Sam at the potter’s wheel and their subsequent slow dance, he decided it just wasn’t needed, and that the scene was erotic enough without having to show what inevitably happened next. It is totally filthy – and I’m not just talking about all the wet clay that goes all over the place (something that always makes me squirm as I hate getting dirty). There’s something about the way they shape the clay when Molly’s work collapses that’s just – there’s no other word for it – phallic. And, as with many great movie moments, it was an unintentional moment. Sam accidentally destroys Molly’s vase, laughs and says “I hope it wasn’t a masterpiece” to which she replies “Well it’s not now”. Demi Moore learned how to work a pottery wheel and that scene was supposed to have ended with them having made something beautiful together, before heading off to bed to make something else beautiful together. But the outtake and subsequent footage worked so much better than the planned moment that they just kept it, and a fleeting but immensely popular and widely recognised moment in pop-culture history was made.

You’ve got beige on you

For me, the reason why we don’t talk about Ghost anymore is that it has an unapologetically “early 90s” aesthetic. There’s a production value to it – which I also noticed when I rewatched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles again recently for the first time in decades – that makes it look cheap – almost TV Movie quality. Maurice Jarre’s score (Oscar-nominated) also doesn’t help. One particular track sounds so similar to Battlestar Galactica’s opening music that every time it played I found myself whistling that show’s theme. There are also some sections of the score that sound and feel like they’ve been done on a cheap synthesiser akin to music from a daytime soap opera.

And then there’s one particular scene, where Sam finally confronts his killer, and a piece of score plays that, I guess was supposed to be heroic, along the lines of Star Wars or Indiana Jones, but it just felt so… cheesy. To be honest, for me the best parts of the score are orchestrated takes on Unchained Melody.

So unlike many of the other films we’ll be discussing in this #90sMC series, this one has not really gone down in history as a must-rewatch classic. Which is a shame, because with just a few tweaks to the production it could have been regarded as an all-time great. It certainly resonated with teenage me, and to some extent still does today. This week I still knew all the lines of dialogue, I still laughed at Goldberg’s performance and, when it came to the highly emotional finale, I found my room getting unexpectedly dusty.

Join us again next time when Matt Adcock continues our LurveFest ’21 with a look at the second of three films featuring the 90s’ most prolific and beloved romantic movie pairings. And as if to prove that love is indeed in the air, his wife will join him to talk about one of her favourite films – 1993’s Sleepless In Seattle.

Paul Childs

As well as writing for Den of Geek and Your Truth, Paul also runs Badgers Crossing, a site for ghost stories. He loves the 1980s and thanks to a keen interest in Public Information Films he has never been electrocuted or set himself on fire.

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