How do you follow up one of the most successful music video short films of all time?
If you are Michael Jackson and Stephen King, with a huge flop. Despite a deep roster of top star talent, Michael Jackson’s Ghosts, a 40-minute short film released in 1997 is barely remembered, but it certainly isn’t because of a lack of bombast. It’s a lost gem, a totally bizarre artifact of genre homage, special effects mastery, and top shelf dance moves.
From “Moonwalker” to the extended version of his video for “Black or White”, Jackson was no stranger to musical short films, even after Thriller. Ghosts was his return to the horror genre. The movie was originally dreamt up in 1993 by Jackson and his pal Stephen King, who is credited as co-writing the story with Jackson. It was originally just going to be a music video for Jackson’s song, “Is It Scary.” However, Jackson’s increasingly controversial personal life (it was around this time that the allegations of inappropriate activity with minors began to crop up) delayed production.
By the time the film did manage to gain some traction, the project’s scope had expanded from a simple (if elaborate) music video to a full-blown short film. The screenplay (as much as there is one) was written by Mick Garris (director of two previous King adaptations, Sleepwalkers and The Stand), and late special effects pioneer Stan Winston. Not content to simply have Winston help him write the piece, King and company also made Winston the director.
While resources on the making of Ghosts are scant, save for a 20-minute “making of” documentary (both Garris and King, the surviving creative forces behind the project were not available for comment), some tidbits about this odd and forgotten piece of cultural ephemera are available.
Set in “Normal Valley,” the film tells the story of a mysterious recluse known only as the Maestro (Michael Jackson), who is set upon, Frankenstein-style, by a mob of angry locals led by the town mayor (also played by Michael Jackson, in some race-switching make-up). As the angry townspeople storm the Maestro’s manor, keen on kicking him out just for being weird, they are met by Jackson’s magical character who conjures up dancing zombies and other monsters, including a CGI skeleton (also played by Jackson via motion capture). The only voices of reason, in a trope familiar to both Jackson and King’s works, are a few moppets who think the Maestro should just be left alone.
In the end, the Maestro crumbles to dust before turning into a huge creature and earning the community’s trust through the magic of harmless scares and dance. The film even ends with a twist ending not unlike the sinister turn at the end of Thriller.
Under Winston’s direction, the special effects were many and varied, all cutting edge for the time. Among the transformations that Jackson went through were a scene where he grotesquely extends the skin of his face to inhuman proportions, and another where, after turning into a towering werewolf demon (in a flowing blouse), Jackson as the Maestro morphs into a CGI blob that infests the Mayor, again, also played by Jackson. In the mid-90s, these sort of effects were state-of-the-art, a feature that production was clearly proud of given the behind-the-scenes make-up footage that ran under the credits.
Then there were the actual songs, tracks taken from HIStory and the remix album, Blood On the Dance Floor. The songs, “2 Bad,” “Is It Scary,” and “Ghosts,” were all worked into the film as though they were written for the purpose. While “2 Bad” deals with themes of alienation and judgement, both “Is It Scary” and “Ghosts” deal explicitly with supernatural ghouls. They had all been released previously, but they were each extended for the film. Given that these songs were all composed before the release of the short film, maybe it’s no wonder that Ghosts came to life.
As it is explained in the making of documentary, Jackson’s stated goal was to outdo Thriller, arguably the music video that truly made him a superstar. No small feat, even for the King of Pop, and unfortunately Ghosts didn’t even manage to garner a shade of the popularity that Thriller had more than a decade earlier.
Ghosts premiered to the public in front of the equally unsuccessful and forgotten King adaptation, Thinner. As a bonus short film, Ghosts was not formally reviewed, but it seems to have been instantly forgotten. In a terrific piece on the failure of Ghosts on the AV Club, its immediate nose dive is blamed both on the ridiculous nature of the piece and Jackson’s personal troubles making it hard for him to market the film. Maybe the spookiest part of the whole situation is that the flop hasn’t haunted either Jackson or King—it stayed invisible, if undead.