I was less than impressed when I first saw Ghost in the theater back in 1990. At the time, I was a twentysomething film geek fond of overusing terms like auteur and mise en scene, and so I turned my nose up and dismissed the box-office blockbuster as a sappy crowd-pleaser. I also cringed in my pre-stadium-seating seat nearly every time Patrick Swayze -- then still riding high on the box-office success of 1987's Dirty Dancing and '89's Road House -- strained for the Big Emotional Moment.
Now that I'm a little older and (allegedly) wiser, I will concede to having been wrong about Ghost. Revisiting the movie via this new "special collector's edition," I can appreciate the well-oiled craftsmanship that makes this fantasy/romance/thriller hum along. It even manages to survive the leaden acting of Patrick Swayze.
Chances are you already know the story. Sam Wheat (Swayze) has a great life. An up-and-coming Wall Street investments consultant, he and his girlfriend, artist Molly Jensen (Demi Moore), live in a spacious, only-in-the-movies New York apartment and have inordinately picturesque sex to the strains of the Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody." But then Sam makes the mistake of investigating a mysteriously full account at his bank. That same night, he is shot by a mugger outside a theater and dies in Molly's arms.
That's where the name of the movie becomes relevant. Sam is now a ghost with nothing to do but hang out and observe his grieving love. Over the course of time, he discovers that his murder was engineered by a slimy friend and coworker, Carl (Tony Goldwyn), to cover up an elaborate money-laundering scheme.
Moreover, Sam learns that Molly is in danger. Desperate to warn her, our hapless spook enlists the help of a charlatan -- and altogether reluctant -- psychic named Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg).
Despite the movie's huge box-office success -- or perhaps because of it – Ghost was always an easy target for ridicule. It is shamelessly commercial and defiantly schmaltzy. Director Jerry Zucker, one-third of the team that concocted Airplane! and The Naked Gun film franchise, brings a light touch to these proceedings. He clearly knows how to target mass audiences, ensuring that there are a few scenes of a bare-chested Swayze (and Goldwyn, for that matter) to cater to female moviegoers.
And yet Ghost is disciplined, very clever and enormously entertaining. Bruce Joel Rubin's Oscar-winning screenplay sticks to the rules of the universe it creates, a rare feat in motion pictures with a paranormal bent.
The filmmakers also deserve credit for their willingness to push dramatic boundaries that risk lapsing into absurdity. The "Unchained Melody" scene, in which Sam and Molly discover the joys of sex 'n' pottery, is justly famous -- but it practically screams out for parody. Similarly, the picture's climactic ending, juiced by Maurice Jarre's swelling musical score, is about as mawkish as they come. But it's delivered with such sincerity and heart -- especially by Demi Moore -- that it works.
Another prime example of dramatic risk occurs when Sam temporarily inhabits Oda Mae's body so that Sam can experience a final moment of intimacy with Molly. Zucker begins with a shot of Oda Mae lovingly caressing Molly's hands. The director then cuts to show Sam, not Oda Mae, embracing Molly. Although some critics at the time derided the Whoopi/Patrick switch as a sort of compromise, the filmmakers' decision makes sense within the context of the scene. After all, it is Sam, and not Oda Mae, who reaches out to Molly one last time.
Goldberg won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Ghost, but the film benefits from several strong performances. Demi Moore, who spends much of her onscreen time wiping away big tears, is affectingly vulnerable. Goldwyn makes a wonderfully petulant villain, while character-actor extraordinaire Vincent Schiavelli gives a great turn as a belligerent subway apparition.
In fact, the only weak link is Swayze. In the DVD commentary, Zucker and Rubin reveal that both Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford turned down the role of Sam. Oh, what could've been ...
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, Ghost's print transfer is first-rate. Aside from a soft image in spots, the picture is clean and clear, with a rich color palette and free of grain and artifacts.
Audio is excellent. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround provides a dramatic and full sound when needed. A Dolby Digital 2.0 track is available, as well as a 2.0 French track. Only English subtitles are included.
The "special collector's edition" offers bonuses that vary from the movie's previous incarnation on DVD. A retrospective featurette on the earlier disc has been scrapped in favor of the 13-minute Ghost Stories: The Making of a Classic. Packed with interviews of cast and crew, the mini-documentary is engaging, even if most of the information here is repeated on the commentary track.
One thing that has not changed is the commentary by Zucker and Rubin. The two are informative and have a nice rapport, although Rubin's self-satisfaction can be a little trying. Still, both men have some terrific anecdotes. It's a kick to discover the grave misgivings that they both initially had about the movie. Rubin says he actually wept when he heard that the likely director was one of the guys responsible for Airplane! Zucker, for his part, admits he was unexcited when Swayze expressed interest in the lead role. The director's initial response? After he saw Road House: "Over my dead body."
Two featurettes are new additions. Inside the Paranormal (8:30) boasts interviews with a handful of mediums who discuss how psychic powers work and (surprise, surprise) credit Ghost for an accurate representation of what the afterlife is like for ectoplasmic spirits. More illuminating is Alchemy of a Love Scene, a six-minute, 15-second examination of the various elements that came together to make Ghost's love scene so memorable.
The disc includes a 19-minute, 33-second segment from the American Film Institute's "100 Years ... 100 Passions" presentation of cinema's great romances. There is a brief clip on Ghost, of course, as well as such true classics as Roman Holiday, A Place in the Sun and Reds.
The DVD also boasts a theatrical trailer, a photo gallery and previews for Titanic, The Last Kiss and Dreamgirls.
It might not be a particularly haunting Ghost, but this 1990 box-office phenomenon still holds up remarkably well, a slick and well-oiled entertainment that juggles romance, suspense, fantasy and -- thanks to the talents of Whoopi Goldberg -- comedy. Cinephiles who already own the earlier DVD release, however, might want to hold off on the upgrade. The new extras are fine, but fall short of justifying a double-dip.