Kate (Catherine Hickland) is driving alone down a highway in Riverton, Arizona after having left her fiancé at the altar. While driving, she hears the noise of horses galloping outside her car, but sees no one. After pulling onto the side of the road, she is whisked away in a dust cloud and disappears.
Sheriff Langley (Franc Luz) is dispatched to Kate’s abandoned car, found later that day. While pulled over, a man on a horse rides by and shoots at him. Langley exits the car, and a stray bullet hits the car’s gas tank, causing the vehicle to explode. Langley wanders by foot, stumbling upon a ghost town off the main road. After falling asleep in an empty building, he awakens the next day to various apparitions that appear to be linked to the town’s past. He meets a barmaid, Grace (Penelope Windust) and a blind gambling dealer (Bruce Glover), as well as a blacksmith and his daughter, Etta.
Meanwhile, Kate is being held captive by Devlin (Jimmie Skaggs), a zombie-like outlaw who has control over the town through a pact he made with Satan. Devlin terrorizes the souls of the town’s residents, and kills both the blacksmith and Etta after they confide in Langley. Upon discovering his modern gun to be ineffective, Langley is given an old revolver by Grace, and finds that he is able to kill Devlin’s henchmen with old bullets.
After finding Kate, Langley is hunted by Devlin’s henchmen. The two hide in the abandoned church, which Devlin and his henchmen light on fire. However, Kate and Langley escape. Outside, Langley has a shootout with Devlin, during which Langley effectively destroys him. As he and Kate leave, the souls of the town’s residents look on with approval, and the town disappears behind them.
Empire’s Ghost Town, by Australian Richard Governor, produced by Tim Tennant, who is dealing here with his first horror movie after involvement with the likes of Gung Ho! and Hot Dog: The Movie. The lead role is essayed by Jimmie F. Skaggs, who has his first-ever starring part in his first-ever horror film as the demonic Devlin, a zombie gunslinger who lives-if that’s the correct word in the titular town and who ends up battling a present day sheriff who wanders in.
Experienced genre hands on the Ghost Town shoot include popular cinematographer Mac Ahlberg, stunt Coordinator Kane Hodder, the MMI makeup FX crew, which comprised Scott Coulter, Greg Johnson and Mike Deak. The FX trio, like the others, went on location in an Arizona ghost town for the five-week shoot. MMI shop foreman John Criswell and lab workers Tom Lauten, Andrew Kenneworthy and Roger McCoin also contributed to the FX workload.
So what did this combination of genre newcomers and seasoned horror vets come up with? Well, for one thing, they didn’t come up with a splatter movie. Oh, sure, we’ve all heard that before, usually from would-be auteurs who want to juke us into believing what they do is real serious art. This time, though, the “not-a-gore-film” line appears to fit.
“It’s more a Gothic horror film than a slasher film,” says producer Tennant. “It’s not what you see in the film, it’s what you don’t see.” Head zombie Skaggs allows that “it’s more like a Twilight Zone episode.” And perhaps the strongest indication of what can be expected from the movie comes from Coulter, the man in charge of Ghost Town’s prosthetics and makeup FX.
“We intentionally stayed away from gore effects in the film,’ Coulter claims. “In fact, when Devlin gets shot in the film, he does not bleed blood, he does not bleed slime. He bleeds dust. When he’s shot, dust hits fly out. We did it with squibs just like regular squibs, but instead of filling them with blood, we packed them with Fuller’s earth.”
Don’t panic. Ghost Town won’t attract Alan Alda fans. The movie contains plenty of sequences designed to raise the gooseflesh, such as a scene in which a prosthetic arm (created by Greg Johnson) gets shot off an actual one-armed man, which Coulter terms a “great” effect, as well as a zombie resurrection.
“When the sheriff comes across the ghost town, the original sheriff from 100 years ago who had been buried alive comes up out of the ground as a rotted zombie and grabs his hands to warn him,” reveals Coulter. “This is the big zombie effect in the movie, and it’s entirely a mechanical puppet. I sculpted it, and John Criswell did the mechanics.
“We shot about 35 miles away from our hotel, out in the middle of nowhere, with no electricity and no water,” he goes on. “They had to get power loaders in there to dig this big hole about six feet deep. There was a big wood platform over it, dirt over that, and a big pit where the actual puppet was. So we had to bury this thing and operate it, and it took all of us. We were grabbing grips and people off the crew to pull cables for it. There were eight or nine of us packed down underneath the thing. and it was about 185 degrees. We were in there for a number of hours, but there was a handy little trap door we could open up between takes, so it was OK. We even had a little video monitor down there so we could see what we were doing.
“The other big spectacular gags are the various things that Devlin does in the movie,” continues Coulter. “He does one really good effect. We were in this barn that was built for another movie. It was old dry wood, full of straw and stuff, and the director insisted upon using a hot iron poker in the scene. Devlin’s a walking zombie at this point in the film, and he takes this hot iron poker and pierces it into a blacksmith, lifts him off the ground, and slams him all across the barn, pinning him to the wall. The special effects guy did this amazing rig; it looked real.
“But what was funny about it was that in the barn, with dried wood and straw all over the place, we were using a 1.500-degree hot iron poker,” Coulter laughs. “I was standing by an exit. If anything happened, I was grabbing my makeup kit and getting out of there. The desert was already quite hot enough.”
Speaking of hot, Kane Hodder and stuntman Alan Marcus pulled off a seldom-seen treat for the film. “Richard Governor wanted to see a guy ignite on camera, and that presented a little problem.” admits Hodder. “If you think about it, when you see someone on fire in the movies, they usually cut from something else to that person already on fire. This was a little tricky. You couldn’t just do the regular thing where I’d come in, wait until the cameras start to roll, light Alan and then run away before the shot begins. Alan was doubling a zombie who had just been shot, and Richard wanted to see a little action of Alan first, then have him burst into flames on camera. What we did was this: Alan stumbled out of a doorway, smoking, and bumped into the door jamb, pausing for a second. I had positioned myself on the other side of the door with a torch, and I ignited him the instant he hit that door jamb. So he continued stumbling for a few steps, and then caught on fire. It worked out real well.”
Hodder echoes the others by stating that Ghost Town is not really a gore exercise. “Of course,” he adds, “there are a lot of excellent makeup effects things, but not so much of the blood-and-guts type. It’s more scary than gory.” He also believes that Skaggs’ performance is one of the brightest things about the entire film, a feeling shared by others.
“Jimmie Skaggs is the sweetest guy in the world playing the meanest guy in the world, and it’s a wonderful contrast,” asserts Tennant. “It’s a very demanding role, because of the makeup. and the hours, and the getting into it and out of it when there isn’t enough time. He’s a real pro and very powerful in the role.”
“Director Richard Governor seemed like a crazy, high energy, highly sexed, charismatic guy with a strong Australian accent… At the time, I was not sure that he had complete control of his set, but I’ve since learned the no one ever has complete control of any set.” – actor Franc Luz
MMI head John Buechler designed the appliance that converts nice guy Skaggs into the hell-on-hooves zombie. The Devlin makeup was sculpted, fabricated and applied on set by Coulter, who likewise praises the actor. “Jimmie is the best actor I ever worked with, as far as using the makeup correctly.” Coulter raves. “He is honestly better than Freddy Krueger, better than any of those guys, about using the foam latex. I watched him when he first got it, and he just sat there, right in front of the mirror, and saw what the foam could do, and then he used it. The man used his entire body, too. He had a walk, a whole attitude. He was very character-oriented. There’s a complete character there on the screen.”
“I had never worn appliances on my face before, and interestingly enough, I got used to them very quickly,” notes Skaggs. “I noticed, though, if I got warm and started to perspire, it would bubble a bit. But Scott Coulter was so experienced at this that he knew how to doctor it up so that no one would ever see. Cut a little hole, drain the sweat, then cover it back up and color it, and no one knew. I didn’t have a real problem wearing it, because once I was in makeup. I was no longer Jimmie Skaggs, and people respected that.”
Prior to the location filming, Skaggs visited the MMI studios for some pre-production work. He says he had no idea what to expect when they sat him down to cast a life mask. “They talked me through it and it all sounded very simple, so I agreed and made a few jokes about how it was like practicing Zen and the art of patience. But then they
started putting this stuff on,” he laughs. “I have never experienced anything like that in my life. It was almost total sensory deprivation. This stuff went in my ears, over my eyelids, covered my mouth. All that was left open were two little nostril holes. I was just fine … for about 15 minutes. Then, all of a sudden, I could feel this flush start to creep up from my chest through my neck up into my face and ears, and I got a little nervous. And I guess about 20 minutes into it, I thought, ‘Oh, God, I’ve got to get out of this! So I started making motions with my hands, and the guys were joking: “What do you want? A glass of water? A cigarette?’ Finally, I stood up in the chair and they got the message. They got it off and, thank God, it had set enough so they could get the mold.”
After one particularly long day in the Arizona sun, Skaggs learned another rather painful truth about the makeup FX business, thanks to some baiting by Coulter and company. As he relates it. “We went back to the trailer to take the makeup off, and everyone was tired. I was tired, Scott was tired, Mike and Greg were tired, and they were taking this stuff off. It took about two hours, and about 45 minutes into it, they were saying, ‘Oh, let’s just get this crap off. Just pull it off, Jim. I pulled that sucker-and my skin came with it! I learned very quickly that we were going to take our time.”
“Yeah,” grins Coulter. After that, he never ever complained about the length of time it took to take the makeup off.”
Stories like that, coupled with a tough shooting schedule and the remoteness of the location, might help explain why a passerby-had anyone passed by-on the last night of filming would have been treated to the bizarre spectacle of a shirtless Jimmie Skaggs, zombie appliance hanging from his face, gleefully shooting up an outhouse in the middle of the Arizona desert as whooping crew members joined in.
“It was after a whole night’s shoot,” recounts Coulter. “And it was the end of the film, you know? You don’t get an opportunity to be out in the desert firing guns very often, so we stopped in the middle of removing the makeup. Jimmie was covered in grease, his makeup half off, out there with a gun. That’s one thing I wish I’d gotten a picture of.”
Besides the performance of Skaggs (and the rest of the cast, which includes the beautiful Catherine Hickland and veteran bad guy Bruce Glover) and the special makeup FX work of the MMI crew. an outstanding facet of Ghost Town may be the film’s overall look. Tennant counts the visual quality as one of the strongest things about the movie.
“Richard Governor brought to Ghost Town a rich visual look,” asserts the producer. “Richard is one of the top commercial directors in the world, and he specializes in documentaries and TV comedies as well. This is his first theatrical picture, but down the line he’s going to be a well-known director because of his tremendous visual sense. He’s a terrific painter of pictures, and the film has a great look because of that. The negative side of it is that he falls in love with everything he sees, in terms of how he stylizes things. He fell so much in love with the images in the picture that when he went into editing, he wanted everything to stay. But everything can’t stay. You’ve got to get away from it, and he couldn’t do it. So he ran into trouble in the editing room.
“Richard is in love with the Gothic horror look, and with European film,” Tennant adds. “Empire, on the other hand, is more bang-bang bang!-get it into a fever pitch and keep it that way to the end. Richard’s cut is more romantic. It has more transition between scenes: it’s not a hard-cut film. There is more of a romantic form after the violence. That’s what he wanted, and that’s what we shot.”
Richard Governor did something very smart in this film,” elaborates Coulter. At the beginning, he shot not the effects, and not the stuff that Empire wants to show in their films. He shot the characters. He spent a great deal of time shooting them and shooting the gravy stuff, the extra stuff, not just the essential storyline. So when it comes time to shoot the stuff that Empire wants to see, that’s when you’re running out of time. But at the same time, he has a strong human story in there now.”
Although Tennant concedes with rancor that Empire knows its market, he also makes it clear that he preferred the director’s original cut, which was paced a bit too leisurely for Empire. “Empire knows their genre better than I do,” he states. “They know their market, and they’re exactly right about that market. But there’s not much you can do to speed up Ghost Town because of the type of film it is.
“A Western is just slower-paced,” Tennant sights. “It’s not modern day cops and robbers, where you have chase scenes with cars. It’s a Western, and you have chase scenes with horses, and a horse doesn’t go as fast as a car. It’s not a car screeching around a corner, it’s a horse turning a corner, and the two are different. You just can’t make things move faster than the period lets them.”
Franc Luz as Langley
Catherine Hickland as Kate
Jimmie F. Skaggs as Devlin
Penelope Windust as Grace
Bruce Glover as Dealer
Zitto Kazann as Blacksmith
Blake Conway as Harper
Laura Schaefer as Etta
Michael Alldredge as Bubba